True Crime Entertainment: What’s New This Week

The following content is generally available worldwide, except where otherwise noted. All TV shows listed are for networks and streaming services based in the United States. All movies listed are those released in U.S. cinemas. This schedule is for content and events premiering this week and does not include content that has already been made available.

November 27 – December 3, 2023

TV/Streaming Services

All times listed are Eastern Time/Pacific Time, unless otherwise noted.

Oxygen’s new series “Fatal Family Feuds” premieres on Saturday, December 2 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. 

Monday, November 27

“Fatal Attraction”
“A Thanksgiving Tragedy” (Episode 1407)
Monday, November 27, 9 p.m., TV One

“Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?”
“Horror by Proxy” (Episode 729)
Monday, November 27, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Payback”
“Caught on Camera” (Episode 210)
Monday, November 27, 10 p.m., TV One

“Seduced to Slay”
“Star-Crossed Killer” (Episode 102)
Monday, November 27, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Tuesday, November 28

“Body Cam: On the Scene”
“Fleeing Felons” (Episode 314)
Tuesday, November 28, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Road Rage”
“Chaotic Confrontations” (Episode 102)
Tuesday, November 28, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Exposed: Naked Crimes”
“Burglars and Brawlers and Prowlers, Oh My” (Episode 102)
Tuesday, November 28, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Operation Undercover”
“Guns and Drugs in California” (Episode 101)
Tuesday, November 28, 11 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Wednesday, November 29

“Dateline”
“The Silhouette”
Wednesday, November 29, 8 p.m., Oxygen

“Murder in the Heartland”
“Mother’s Intuition” (Episode 703)
Wednesday, November 29, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“To Catch a Smuggler: Mediterraean”
“Border Trouble” (Episode 102)
Wednesday, November 29, 9 p.m., National Geographic

“Court Cam”
(Episode 618)
Wednesday, November 29, 9 p.m., A&E

“Court Cam”
(Episode 619)
Wednesday, November 29, 9:30 p.m., A&E

“Feds”
“Garden City Terror” (Episode 104)
Wednesday, November 29, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Interrogation Cam”
(Episode 105)
Wednesday, November 29, 10 p.m., A&E

“Interrogation Cam”
(Episode 106)
Wednesday, November 29, 10:30 p.m., A&E

“Crime Feed”
“Serial Killer Special Report” (Episode 108)
Wednesday, November 29, 11 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Thursday, November 30

“Wild Crime” (Season 3)
Thursday, November 30, 3 a.m. ET/12 a.m. PT, Hulu

Friday, December 1

“On Patrol: First Shift”
TBA
Friday, December 1, 8 p.m., Reelz

“On Patrol: Live”
TBA
Friday, December 1, 9 p.m., Reelz

“Killer Cases”
“Killer Cases” (Episode 410)
Friday, December 1, 9 p.m., A&E

“The Real Murders of Los Angeles”
“Murder on the Menu” (Episode 108)
Friday, December 1, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Murder in the 21st”
“Dead End” (Episode 106)
Friday, December 1, 10 p.m., A&E

Saturday, December 2

“On Patrol: First Shift”
TBA
Saturday, December 2, 8 p.m., Reelz

“Prosecuting Evil With Kelly Siegler”
“We Let Evil In” (Episode 103)
Saturday, December 2, 8 p.m., Oxygen

“On Patrol: Live”
TBA
Saturday, December 2, 9 p.m., Reelz

“Fatal Family Feuds”
“The Tragic Tale of Buzz Clinton” (Episode 101) **Series Premiere**
Satuday, December 2, 9 p.m., Oxygen

“The Sister Wife Murder” (TV Special)
Saturday, December 2, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“48 Hours”
TBA
Saturday, December 2, 10 p.m., CBS

Sunday, December 3

“Snapped”
“Joe Campbell” (Episode 3306)
Sunday, December 3, 6 p.m., Oxygen

“Final Moments”
“House of Horror” (Episode 209)
Sunday, December 3, 7 p.m., Oxygen

“Victim to Verdict With Ted Rowlands”
TBA (Episode 108)
Sunday, December 3, 8 p.m., Court TV

“Chowchilla” (Documentary Film)
Sunday, December 3, 9 p.m., CNN

“American Monster”
“A Wedding and Four Funerals” (Episode 1104)
Sunday, December 3, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Good Cop, Bad Cop”
“Blind Spot” (Episode 104)
Sunday, December 3, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Movies in Theaters or on Home Video

No new true crime movies premiering in theaters or on home video this week.

Radio/Podcasts

No new true crime podcast series premiering this week.

Events

Events listed here are not considered endorsements by this website. All ticket buyers with questions or concerns about the event should contact the event promoter or ticket seller directly.

All start times listed are local time, unless otherwise noted.

No new true crime events this week.

Review: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone

October 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios/Paramount Pictures)

“Killers of the Flower Moon”

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Some language in Dhegiha Siouan with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oklahoma, from 1919 to 1926, the dramatic film “Killers of the Flower Moon” (based on the non-fiction book of the same name) features a white and Native American cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart gets caught up in murders of members of the Osage Nation, including family members of his Osage Nation wife, who are being killed to gain possession of land that is rich in petroleum oil.

Culture Audience: “Killers of the Flower Moon” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Martin Scorsese, the star headliners and history-based movies with a top-notch principal cast.

Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons in “Killers of the Flower Moon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios/Paramount Pictures)

Epic in scope and tragic in tone, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is an impactful drama that tells the true story of a shameful part of American history when racism and greed caused the murders of Osage Nation people. The movie is very long but worth seeing. At 206 minutes (nearly three-and-a-half hours), “Killers of the Flower Moon” has moments when the pacing tends to drag. However, the movie is impressive in almost every other way.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese directed “Killers of the Flower Moon” from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Eric Roth. The screenplay was adapted from David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” “Killers of the Flower Moon” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” (which takes place in Oklahoma from 1919 to 1926) is fairly straightforward in showing what it’s about early on the story. World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in the city of Fairfax, Oklahoma, to start a new chapter in his life. Ernest was wounded in the war, so his job opportunities are limited.

Ernest begins working for his cattle-farming uncle William “Bill” Hale, also known as King Hale, who is one of the most powerful and corrupt people in the city. Bill, who is also Farifax’s deputy sheriff, has a fake persona of being an upstanding and lawful citizen. Fairfax and the surrounding cities have a lot of petroleum-rich land that is owned by the Osage Nation tribe of Native Americans/indigenous people, who have a complicated and often uneasy co-existence with the white people who live in the same cities.

Soon after bachelor Ernest arrives in Fairfax, Bill asks him what kind of women appeal to Ernest. Ernest says he likes all types of women and is open to romancing women of Native American heritage. Bill tells Ernest that it would be to Ernest’s financial advantage if he marries and has children with an Osage Nation woman, in order for Ernest to get control of some of the Osage Nation land that can make the owners wealthy from the petroleum oil mined from the land.

There’s a very sinister aspect to this inheritance-by-marriage scheme: Osage Nation people in the area have been dying in alarming numbers in the region. Many of these deaths look like accidents or suicides but are actually murders. This period of time was called the Reign of Terror.

The local law enforcement controlled by white people are doing little to nothing to investigate these deaths and hinder any investigations from Osage Nation officers. It isn’t long before Ernest gets involved in these murders. None of this is spoiler information, since “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a history-based drama.

At Bill’s urging, Ernest begins courting an Osage Nation woman named Mollie Kyle (played by Lily Gladstone), who has hired Ernest to be her driver. Mollie is the movie’s frequent voiceover narrator. Ernest and Mollie have a mild flirtation that quickly grows into mutual sexual attraction. Mollie genuinely falls in love with Ernest. Meanwhile, Ernest seems to have romantic feelings for Mollie, but he’s more in love with what he can get out of this marriage. After a quick courtship, Mollie and Ernest get married and they have children together.

At the time that Mollie and Ernest get married (she changes her last name to Burkhart), her family consists mostly of women. Mollie’s widowed mother Lizzie Q (played by Tantoo Cardinal) suspects that white people are murdering Osage Nation people, so she doesn’t trust white people, and she disapproves of Mollie’s marriage to Ernest. Mollie’s sister Reta (played by Janae Collins) is married to a white man named Bill Smith (played Jason Isbell), who was previously married to Mollie’s other sister Minnie (played by Jillian Dion), who died of a “wasting illness.” Mollie has another sister named Anna (played by Cara Jade Myers), who is feisty and who likes to party.

Other people who are connected in some way to the murders and/or the investigations include Federal Bureau of Investigation official Tom White (played by Jesse Plemons); Osage Nation Chief Bonnicastle (played by Yancey Red Corn); and a lowlife thug named Kelsie Morris (played by Louis Cancelmi), who works closely with Bill. Other supporting actors in the movie include John Lithgow as Prosecutor Peter Leaward and Brendan Fraser as defense attorney W.S. Hamilton. Fraser’s over-the-top performance verges on being campy and doesn’t quite fit the more grounded and somber tone of the movie.

A valid criticism of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is it that the Osage Nation people in the movie aren’t the center of the story and should have been given more screen time and better character development. Except for Mollie and her Osage Nation family members, Osage Nation people are primarily depicted in the movie has having vague or non-existent personalities. Without Mollie and her family, “Killers of the Flower Moon” would be a largely soulless portrayal of hate crimes and racial injustice.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” accurately shows that the wealthy Osage Nation people couldn’t get access to their money without getting permission from the white government officials (in this case, all white men) who controlled the Osage Nation’s finances. Ironically, similar dynamics exist in the film industry, in terms of who usually gets to tell stories about Native American people in big-budget movies. (Not much has changed since the Oscar-winning blockbuster success of 1990’s “Dances With Wolves.”) It’s unlikely that Native American filmmakers—no matter how talented or experienced—would have been given the same privileges or budget to tell this story as the all-white team of producers, screenwriters and director who made “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

One of the more fascinating aspects of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is how the personalities of Ernest and Mollie change during the period of time when this story takes place. At first, Ernest appears to be somewhat of an easily led buffoon who doesn’t seem to know much about life. Over time, Ernest shows that he’s much more manipulative and cunning than he first appears to be. He’s the type of schemer whose loyalties to anyone except himself are very murky, questionable, and can quickly shift to suit his own agenda.

Mollie starts off being confident and outspoken, with more power in the relationship. After all, she was Ernest’s boss when they began their courtship. However, as time goes on, after Mollie and Ernest are married, she becomes worn down and insecure by tragedy and illness. (Mollie, who has diabetes, is being slowly poisoned by tainted insulin without her knowledge.) Mollie’s unconditional love for Ernest also blinds her to the dark side of his personality, so she becomes too trusting of what he’s saying and doing.

The movie tries to push a narrative that Ernest is a loving father and husband who’s conflicted about his ulterior motives. However, during the latter half of the film, there’s no doubt about what type of husband Ernest is, because of his knowledge about why Mollie is slowly dying. Ernest is also not shown having a close bond with his and Mollie’s children (Elizabeth, Cowboy, and Anna), who are all under the age of 7, and are mostly background characters.

Vanessa Rose Pham has the role of Elizabeth as a baby. Kinsleigh McNac has the role of Elizabeth at ages 2 and 3. Elizabeth Waller has the role of Elizabeth at ages 3 to 5 years old. Alexis Waller has the role of Elizabeth at ages 5 and 6. Roanin Davis has the role of Cowboy as a baby. Bravery Lane Nowlin has the role of Cowboy at ages 2 and 3. Mamie Cozad has the role of Anna as a baby. Lux Britni Malaske has the role of Anna at 2 years old.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is not a murder mystery, because it’s revealed very early on in the story who are the main perpetrators of these crimes. The movie is more of a chronicle of systemic racism and how it leads to incalculable damage that goes beyond city borders. The story is told through the lens of the relationship between Mollie and Ernest as a way for viewers to see how one particular family was affected by evil disguised as entitlement.

On a technical level, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is nearly flawless, when it comes to cinematography, production design, costume design and musical score. (Robbie Robertson, the composer for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” passed away in August 2023.) “Killers of the Flower Moon” succeeds in immersing viewers into this particular community where “truth” and “justice” can be warped and have different meanings to people.

People who watch “Killers of the Flower Moon” can expect the usual excellence from the principal cast members, although there’s a lot of familiarity to DiCaprio and De Niro portraying dishonorable characters in Scorsese movies, as they have done so many times already. Gladstone has the breakout performance in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” since her depiction of Mollie is absolutely superb. Although the Reign of Terror involved many people in several regions, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” along with Gladstone’s performance, shows with disturbing clarity the horror of a duplicitous serial killer as a trusted member of one’s own household.

Apple Studios and Paramount Pictures will release “Killers of the Flower Moon” in U.S. cinemas on October 20, 2023.

Review: ‘BS High,’ starring Roy Johnson, John Barnham Sr., Ben Ferree, Justin Daniel, Bomani Jones, Trilian Harris and Quincy Talmadge

July 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Roy Johnson in “BS High” (Photo by David Markun/HBO)

“BS High”

Directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe

Culture Representation: The documentary “BS High”—about a corruption scandal involving a football team for the illegitimate school Bishop Sycamore High School in Columbus, Ohio—interviews a mix of African Americans and white people representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Roy Johnson took money and young athletes’ dreams to start a U.S. football team affiliated with fabricated high schools.

Culture Audience: “BS High” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in U.S. football and sports scandals.

Justin Daniel in “BS High” (Photo by David Markun/HBO)

“BS High” is a heartbreaking and cautionary tale about con artists taking advantage of young athletes’ hopes and dreams. This documentary is also a helpful guide to see how pathological liars operate and how not to get fooled. “BS High” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, “BS High” is an unflinching portrait of a self-admitted con man and several of the victims whose lives were damaged by his lies and scams. The chief villain of the story is Roy Johnson, but he was enabled and helped by other people—most of whom are not interviewed in the documentary, for reasons that aren’t really explained in the documentary. Johnson was considered the mastermind of the schemes he was involved with, and he is interviewed in “BS High.” The interviews with Johnson took place in Los Angeles in 2022.

The documentary confirms that Johnson (who was born in 1980), by his own admission, has a problem with consistently telling the truth, he’s very insecure, and he has serious anger issues. “Anger is a blanket emotion,” Johnson says early on in “BS High,” where he is seen asking some of the documentary’s crew members what kind of body language he should have during his on-camera interviews. “Do I look like a con man?” he asks with a smirk.

“BS High” begins with archival footage of the event that marked the beginning of the scrutiny that led to the downfall of Johnson’s biggest scam. On August 29, 2021, ESPN did a live telecast of a high school football game between the well-known IMG Academy and and the obscure Bishop Sycamore High School at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. It was one of the most embarrassing football game defeats ever shown on TV. The final score was 58-0, with IMG winning against a team that fumbled and stumbled its way to a resounding loss.

This TV exposure of Bishop Sycamore High School (based in Columbus, Ohio) and the incompetence of its football team led many people to look into what this high school was all about and how they got these football players, many of whom looked a lot older than high-school age. And what was discovered was one of the biggest U.S. football scandals of all time: Bishop Sycamore High School did not exist as an accredited school and did not have academic courses. It was actually the name of a sketchy recruitment program led by Johnson.

“BS High” obviously has a double meaning that is pointed out in the documentary. BS can stand for Bishop Sycamore, and it can stand for “bullshit.” The latter is what Johnson has been accused of serving up for many years by many people. He is still embroiled in lawsuits for fraud and unpaid bills. In “BS High,” Johnson dismisses the dishonest way that his football team ended up on ESPN. He says all that matters was that the team made it that far to be in a game that was televised on ESPN.

This “all publicity is good publicity” attitude seems to fuel a lot of Johnson’s motivation to participate in this documentary, as he brags about how far he took his schemes, with little or no regard for the people he hurt along the way. Johnson acts as if it’s an accomplishment that he’s now the subject of a documentary because of all his troubling actions. But instead of Johnson coming across as a movie star, he comes across as someone desperately trying to spin his story and create more smoke and mirrors for his already ruined reputation.

Journalist/author Andrew King says in “BS High” that he isn’t surprised that Johnson agreed to be interviewed for the documentary: “He could be the next in a long line of people who falls on his own sword because he talks to much in a documentary.” Not only does Johnson talk a lot, he also heinously laughs when he thinks about his scams and how many people he fooled. And, at times, he gets angry and blames his victims for being “stupid.”

“BS High” gives some background info, most of it told by Johnson, to give context for how he turned out the way that he did. Johnson says that as a child, he was obsessed with the action TV series “The A-Team” and identified the most with Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, the leader of the team, played by actor George Peppard. “I literally thought I was Hannibal,” Johnson comments. The Hannibal character in “The A-Team” was a military commander, a strategist, a master of disguises and an amateur actor. Hannibal’s signature line was “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Like many con artists, Johnson failed in a career where he targeted people as victims. By his own admission, Johnson says that he was a failed athlete. Johnson says that he got an internship with the New England Patriots, which influenced him to want to become a general manager in professional football. Around the same time, Johnson says he was “mentoring” his younger brother, who accomplished something that Johnson could not accomplish: He got a football scholarship.

Johnson says in the documentary that his “mentoring” of his younger brother led to his interest in helping other young football players. “For me,” Johnson says of this brotherly “mentorship” experience, “it was an opportunity to take it from helping my brother and a few people to an entire school.” It’s doubtful that anyone in Johnson’s family is looking up to him now. None of his family members is interviewed in this documentary.

Eventually, Johnson teamed up with John Barnham Sr. to co-found Christians of Faith Academy, a non-profit group aimed at helping underprivileged youth, most of whom are African American. Even though the word “academy” was in its title, Christians of Faith Academy was never an accredited school and didn’t have any academic courses. Instead, it was essentially a recruitment program for teenage football players, with Johnson as the head “coach.”

Many of these children and their parents willingly went along because they thought this program was legitimate and because Johnson filled their heads with big promises that he could turn their sons into college students with football scholarships who could then become National Football League (NFL) recruits. The Christians of Faith Academy, for a while, was funded by money that was flowing in from donations and sponsors that Johnson takes most of the credit for getting, even though he had no previous experience in managing an athletics program for high schoolers. Johnson has never had the required permit to coach high school football.

“BS High” co-directors Free and Roe are heard off-camera occasionally asking Johnson some interview questions or responding to some of the things he says. At one point, Barnham’s name is mentioned to Johnson, who acts like he doesn’t remember who Barnham is. Eventually, Johnson admits that Barnham was his partner in Christians of Faith Academy, but Johnson insists that Barnham wasn’t as involved as Johnson was in managing the academy. Barnham does not say much in the documentary, but Barnham says that he’s not surprised that Johnson pretended not to remember Barnham.

Johnson freely admits to having a “fake it ’til you make it” attitude. He says of his philosophy to get money out of people: “Do what the people who have money do, even if you don’t have the money.” Johnson also admits that he is “insecure” and “very resourceful.” He adds, “And that’s a very bad combination.”

And what that “bad combination” led to was Johnson overspending and not paying hefty bills. Johnson shrugs off his debts (the documentary estimates that he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to untold numbers of people, some of whom are suing him) as if it’s just his way of doing business. Johnson and other people in the documentary say that his attitude has always been that he needs to spend money in order to make money.

As a religious non-profit group, the Christians of Faith Academy was allowed to get certain tax breaks. What the Christians of Faith Academy was not allowed to do was misrepresent itself as a school for academics when soliciting donations and other funds. The downfall of the Christians of Faith Academy began when the African Methodist Episcopal Church withdrew its support after reports began surfacing that the Christians of Faith Academy was not a legitimate school and funds were being mishandled.

In “BS High,” Johnson makes an “X-Men” reference when he talks about how he tried to prevent the Christians of Faith Academy from being shut down: “I’m Magneto. These are my mutants, and I’m fighting for them.” In Marvel’s “X-Men” comic books and movies, the main characters are mutants. Magneto is a mutant villain. After Christians of Faith Academy went out of business, Johnson founded Bishop Sycamore High School.

Ben Ferree, a civil rights investigator who used to work for the Ohio Athletic Association Foundation, was one of the first people to do an in-depth investigation into Johnson’s shady business dealings. Ferree says that the Christians of Faith Academy and Bishop Sycamore High School were the same scams under different names. Bishop Sycamore High School was also registered as a religious non-profit group.

Many of Johnson’s athlete victims dropped out of real high schools in order to get “training” at Bishop Sycamore High School. And in some cases, the documentary alleges that certain Bishop Sycamore High School “students” were actually over the age of 19, which is the cutoff age to play in league-sanctioned high school football. IMG Academy (which is based in Bradenton, Florida) is a famous training institution for high schoolers to be recruited into National Collegiate Athletics Association football. Bishop Sycamore High School was marketed as being like an IMG Academy for Ohio.

More powerful than any of Johnson’s statements in the documentary are the interviews and testimonies from the football players who got pulled into Johnson’s schemes. Trilian Harris, Adrian Brown Jr., Justin Daniel, ZyShawn Johnson (no relation to Roy Johnson), Isaiah Miller, Mecose Todd, Kymetrius Gates and Quincy Talmadge all talk about what it was like to be fooled by Roy Johnson, who dangled promises of making them star football players who could be recruited for football scholarships by top-tier football universities, which would then pave the way to fame and fortune in the NFL.

All of these victims describe Roy Johnson as being very charismatic but also having a cruel side that took pleasure in verbally and physically abusing them. Roy Johnson admits to having a history of violence, including beating up homeless men. The documentary also mentions Roy Johnson being arrested in 2020, for physically assaulting his girlfriend at the time. The outcome of that domestic violence case is mentioned in the documentary.

At first, Roy Johnson’s football victims were dazzled by what seemed to be Johnson’s successful image. But over time, they saw many things that were wrong and inappropriate about the “training” and road trips they would take. It’s alleged in the documentary that money became so scarce, Johnson ordered his young athletes to steal food for them to eat. They also witnessed Johnson commit violence against them and other people.

More than any money that could have been defrauded is the incalculable emotional cost and the sense of betrayal that the victims feel. Some of his victims, such as Harris, describe having some form of post-traumatic stress disorder because of what they experienced during their time “training” with Roy Johnson. Daniel breaks down and sobs when he describes how being involved in Bishop Sycamore High School ruined his chances of getting into a good college. Harris was admitted into Grambling State University, but he had his admission revoked when the school found out that he was affiliated with Bishop Sycamore High School.

And where were the parents during all this scamming? Only two parents are interviewed in the documentary: Harris’ mother Kristi Ferguson and Talmadge’s mother Erica Cain. They both echo what their sons say about being fooled by Roy Johnson’s smooth-talking ways. Both mothers also say that because of their financial struggles raising their sons as single mothers, they were grateful at the time that someone was taking an interest in training their sons to get football scholarships.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include journalist Bomani Jones; videographers Mike Moline and Anthony Marino, who were briefly hired by Roy Johnson during his Christians of Faith Academy days; and Dave Pando, the owner of a paintball business that says Roy Johnson still owes $800 on an unpaid bill. When Roy Johnson is asked about this unpaid paintball bill, he laughs and says he doesn’t remember anything about this debt, but if it exists, he says it’s chump change to him.

Roy Johnson has a nonchalant, cold or angry victim-blaming reaction when he’s asked how he feels about what he did to his victims, especially those whose young lives he altered in very damaging ways. During one comment, Roy Johnson shrugs and says, “Life happens.” During another comment, he says of his long history of deception: “I’m a con man-ish.” In another comment, Johnson says with no irony whatsoever, “I’m the most honest liar I know.”

But a moment comes when Roy Johnson’s cocky façade comes off, and he looks shaken to the core. During an interview, Harris calls Roy Johnson “evil” for what Roy Johnson did to his victims. Roy Johnson and Barnham, sitting next to each other, are shown this comment on a laptop computer. Barnham says nothing, but guilt and remorse are shown all over his face. Roy Johnson angrily gets up and storms out of the interview and says that it’s all a set-up to make him look bad. Later, Roy Johnson comes back to resume the interview, and he tries to look like he’s the victim.

Some people might have criticisms about “BS High” giving Roy Johnson the publicity he obviously craves. However, anyone who watches the entire documentary will see that “BS High” does not make Roy Johnson look glamorous or make him look like an anti-hero. It does the opposite: It exposes his duplicitous personality and shows how cowardly he can be when he’s confronted with the damage that his misdeeds have done.

Many viewers watching “BS High” will be infuriated by how certain people featured in this documentary got away with certain injustices for as long as they did. “BS High” could have done more to explain why certain enablers aren’t in the documentary or what comment, if any, they had if they were contacted by the “BS High” filmmakers. However, “BS High” is an urgent wake-up call to look at the bigger picture of a system that allowed this abuse and fraud to thrive in the first place and what should be done to prevent this abuse and fraud in the future.

HBO will premiere “BS High” on August 23, 2023.

Review: ‘Lovely Jackson,’ starring Rickey Jackson, Edward Vernon, Anthony Singleton, Mark Godsey, Brian Howe, Mary McGrath and Clarissa Jackson

December 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rickey Jackson in “Lovely Jackson” (Photo courtesy of Zodiac Features)

“Lovely Jackson”

Directed by Matt Waldeck

Culture Representation: The true crime documentary “Lovely Jackson” features a group working-class and middle-class African American and white people discussing the case of Rickey Jackson, who spent 39 years in prison for a 1975 murder in Cleveland that he did not commit.

Culture Clash: Jackson and several people connected to the case talk about his struggles to prove his innocence and how racism played a role in his conviction.

Culture Audience: “Lovely Jackson” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about wrongful imprisonments and racial injustice.

Rickey Jackson in “Lovely Jackson” (Photo courtesy of Zodiac Features)

“Lovely Jackson” is an example of a true crime movie that not only shines a light on a tragic failure in the U.S. criminal justice system but also offers a beacon of hope for people who are seeking justice. Rickey Jackson tells his story of being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for murder in this artfully directed and riveting documentary. In May 1975, money order collector Harold J. Franks was shot to death during a robbery of a convenience store in Cleveland. The truth about who committed thes crimes has been at the center of various different trials and a lot of controversy.

In August 1975, Jackson (who was 18 years old at the time) was found guilty of these crimes in a jury trial. The prosecution’s main evidence was testimony from Edward “Ed” Vernon, an acquaintance of Jackson’s, who named Jackson as the shooter, even though Jackson had an alibi when the robbery/murder took place. A .38 caliber gun was used in the shooting, but this type of gun was never linked to Jackson. In December 1975, Jackson was sentenced to death.

Jackson was also convicted of attempted murder because Anna Robinson, the wife of the store’s owner, was shot during the robbery, but she survived. Wiley Bridgeman and his brother Ronnie Bridgeman (who now goes by the name Kwame Ajamu) were convicted of being Jackson’s accomplices in these crimes. The Bridgeman brothers also proclaimed their innocence in these crimes. At the time of these convictions in 1975, Wiley was 21, while Ronnie was 24.

Jackson always maintained his innocence, but he stayed in prison for 39 years. He has a remarkable story that won’t be fully revealed in this review, in case people don’t know what happened during his arduous fight to prove his innocence. Even though the outcome of the case is extraordinary, “Lovely Jackson” never lets viewers forget that what isn’t so remarkable or extraordinary are the untold numbers of wrongly convicted people who are in prison and can’t get the help or justice that they need.

Directed by Matt Waldeck, “Lovely Jackson” is a documentary that has some re-enactments that appear almost like dream sequences. Jackson serves as the main narrator of the story, while the documentary also includes interviews with people who know Jackson and are connected to his case in some way. The movie is in black-and-white during the bleakest parts of the story and switches to color for certain interviews and archival footage when the story takes some twists and turns.

Jackson tells harrowing tales of what life was like in prison, including the vicious beatdowns he witnessed, the tricky tightrope of navigating social alliances among criminals, and shutting down emotionally as a means of survival. He says he adopted this attitude in prison: “I don’t give a fuck. I’ll do whatever it takes. Don’t bother me. That’s the attitude that I had to have to survive in there.”

How did Jackson end up in this awful nightmare? According to interviews in the documentary and court testimony, Vernon (who was 12 years old in 1975) saw Jackson and some friends among the curious bystanders who showed up at the crime scene after the robbers/murderers got away. Vernon came forward as a witness. And in the police interrogation room, Vernon named Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers as the culprits, even though there was no physical evidence linking these three men to the crimes.

Jackson lost more than his freedom during his time in prison. He says that his family members stopped visiting him and communicating with him after a while, until he had no visitors or communication from any family or friends for nearly 25 years while he was in prison. He says that this estrangement wasn’t because his loved ones believed he was guilty.

Jackson thinks it was because it was too painful for them to see him in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, and avoiding him was the best way that they knew how to get on with their lives. He comments, “I never wanted anyone to put their life on hold for me because I was in prison. I just wanted them to not forget about me.”

Jackson breaks down and cries at the memory of when the police came to his family’s home to arrest him. His family was dragged outside, rounded up like criminals, and forced to do whatever the police told them to do. Jackson says tearfully, “Just seeing that there did something bad to me … That feeling of helplessness.” He also describes in detail the police brutality he went through in the investigation, where he was punched so hard that he lost consciousness. He remembers the police using a buffer when assaulting him so that their punches wouldn’t leave visible injuries.

Even with all this abuse and degradation, Jackson refused to make a false confession. In 1978, Jackson was among 53 inmates in Ohio whose death sentences were vacated and changed to life in prison. During all of his parole board hearings, Jackson refused to say he was guilty. During his long and torturous appeal process to get a new trial, Jackson also refused any plea bargain where he would have to plead guilty, even if it meant that he would be released from prison earlier than expected.

Jackson also talks about how he used his time in prison to educate himself and find ways to get his appeals heard by the right people. It was never easy, of course, because he dealt with many years of rejections and false hope. At times, it felt like he was in a very lonely battle for his freedom, since many of his early supporters faded away and seemed to forget about him. It’s a heartbreaking reality for many innocent people who are in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

The re-enactments and dreamlike sequences in “Lovely Jackson” are all in black and white. Some of the sequences show Jackson screaming in slow-motion while describing some of his moments of deepest despair. He talks about his bouts with depression. Jackson also appears in some flashback scenes as an observer to what his life was like in the past. The actors who appear in these re-enactments and dreamlike sequences include Mario Beverly as a young Jackson, Devito Parker Jr. as a young Vernon, and Dijon Kirkland as Jackson’s beloved mother.

What’s even more compelling than the re-enactments is the story of what happened in real life. Even though there aren’t a lot of people interviewed in the documentary (a wise choice since this movie didn’t need too many talking heads), “Lovely Jackson” has a fairly well-rounded group of people who are interviewed. What’s also impressive is how candid the interviewees are in the documentary.

Karen Smith, the only eyewitness to the murder, blasts the prosecution for not calling her as a witness in Jackson’s first trial. Mary McGrath, assistant county prosecutor of Ohio’s Marion County, had a vested interest in not letting Vernon’s conviction be overturned, even though she wasn’t part of Jackson’s first trial. In “Lovely Jackson,” McGrath admits that Smith’s testimony was more important than any recantation that Vernon (the prosecution’s star witness) might have made.

A remorseful Vernon does a sit-down interview where he discusses feeling guilty about being the main reason why three innocent people were sent to prison. He says that the police put pressure on him to name people as the culprits, and that the police weren’t concerned finding any evidence against the people he named. Vernon opens up about having suicidal thoughts when he was younger because he felt so ashamed of his role in these wrongful convictions.

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Jackson being African American had a lot do with the raw deal that he got in a criminal justice system that tends to gives worse punishments to people of color for the same crimes that white people commit. Jackson’s working-class background also affected his ability to get good legal representation in a case that should never have resulted in him being indicted, due to the lack of evidence.

One of the best things about “Lovely Jackson” is how it shows the heroes who helped Jackson in his quest for justice. Anthony Singleton, a pastor in Cleveland, was instrumental in getting Vernon to recant his original testimony about Jackson, after years of Vernon refusing to publicly comment on the case. The documentary includes an emotionally impactful scene with Singleton and Vernon demonstrating how Vernon had a change of heart.

Ohio Innocence Project co-founder Mark Godsey and defense attorney Brian Howe (who was Jackson’s co-counsel during Jackson’s second trial) are also interviewed and give vivid details about the appeals process and the massive amount of work (and numerous setbacks) during this process. Another of Jackson’s champions who came along later in Jackson’s life is his wife Clarissa Jackson, who is one of the documentary’s interviewees. The documentary is named after their daughter Lovely Jackson.

“Lovely Jackson” had its world premiere at the 2022 American Black Film Festival. In 2022, the documentary was also screened at the Montreal International Black Film Festival, the Red Rock Film Festival and San Diego International Film Festival. It’s the type of memorable movie that should have a chance to be seen by more people. Rickey Jackson’s story has a lot of tragedy, but it’s also a remarkable and inspirational testament to the power of never giving up during seemingly impossible odds.

Review: ‘American Murderer,’ starring Tom Pelphrey, Ryan Phillippe, Idina Menzel and Jacki Weaver

November 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tom Pelphrey in “American Murderer” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films and Lionsgate)

“American Murderer”

Directed by Matthew Gentile

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 2004 and 2005 (with several flashbacks to previous years, going back to the 1970s) in Utah, California and Arizona, the crime drama film “American Murderer” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Longtime con man Jason Derek Brown goes on the run from the law after becoming the prime suspect in the shooting and killing of an armored car guard during a robbery.

Culture Audience: “American Murderer” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about true crime, but this dull and generic thriller leaves out a lot of important information in understanding the real people involved.

Ryan Phillippe in “American Murderer” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films and Lionsgate)

A movie about one of the FBI’s most-wanted criminals should have been intriguing. Unfortunately, the crime drama “American Murderer” wastes the talents of the cast members to deliver a boring story that relies heavily on superficial flashbacks that don’t answer questions. The movie is poorly structured and repetitive in all the wrong ways.

Written and directed by Matthew Gentile, “American Murderer” is about Jason Derek Brown, a longtime con man who was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for 17 years. Brown is the prime suspect in the murder of Robert Keith Palomares, a 24-year-old armored car guard who was shot and killed during a robbery in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 29, 2004. Investigators say that the killer stole about $56,000 in cash during this deadly robbery.

A bicycle that the gunman used as the initial getaway vehicle was found not far from the crime scene. Brown’s fingerprints were on the bicycle. The shooter used a .45-caliber semiautomatic Glock pistol, which is the same type of gun that Brown was known to have. Brown, who was 35 in 2004, has been on the run ever since this robbery and murder. The charges against him are first-degree murder, armed robbery and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

This information is widely known, so it’s not spoiler information to a lot of people who might see the movie. And the film’s title is enough to tell viewers that a murder is going to happen in the movie, so there shouldn’t be any surprise when it does. Brown has not entered a plea to these accusations. And so, technically, until the case is resolved in a court of law, he’s innocent until proven guilty.

But those legal details (and many other details) are completely ignored in “American Murderer,” which has scenes showing Brown committing the crimes of which he’s accused, thereby declaring him guilty before Brown has answered to these charges. (For the purposes of this review, the real Brown will be referred to as Brown, while the character of Jason Brown in the movie will be referred to as Jason.) Even if the filmmakers wanted to stay neutral about declaring Brown guilty or not guilty of the murder, there are too many other problems with “American Murderer” that make it an unworthy story about this case.

“American Murderer” has a tedious and muddled timeline of events that don’t do very much to explain a lot of things that needed to be explained. The murder isn’t shown until 66 minutes into this 101-minute movie. The movie has so many flashbacks, even the flashbacks have flashbacks. The opening scene of “American Murderer” takes place on November 6, 2004, and depicts Jason (played by Tom Pelphrey) going into a pawn shop to sell a luxury watch and a wedding ring.

Viewers will see that Jason is a highly manipulative con man who can act a certain way, tell lies, and create personas of himself to serve whatever purpose that he has, which is usually to swindle people out of money. In this pawn shop scene, Jason tells the pawn broker (played by Chris Harvey) that the watch belonged to his late father, and the ring belonged to his deceased mother. Jason begins to cry when he talks about his mother, whom he says has recently died of pancreatic cancer.

However, Jason is composed enough to haggle over the purchase price for the jewelry. The pawn broker initially offers $1,000 to buy both items. It’s an amount that Jason thinks is unacceptable, so he and the pawn broker do some back-and-forth bargaining until they settle on $2,000 for the sale. Almost as soon as they make this agreement, Jason sees on the shop’s security camera that some rough-looking men are about to enter the pawn shop.

Jason knows who these men are, and he looks apprehensive. He rushes through the sale, gets the money, and asks the pawn shop broker if he can exit through the back door. The pawn shop broker, who’s used to dealing with shady people, can easily figure out what’s going on, and he doesn’t want any trouble in his shop. He lets Jason leave through the back. As soon as Jason makes a getaway in his car, Jason yells triumphantly to himself, “Fucking idiots!”

The next scene takes place at the FBI office in Salt Lake City, Utah, where special agent Lance Leising (played by Ryan Phillippe) is leading the FBI’s investigation to find Jason. This is where the movie’s sloppy screenwriting starts to show. Viewers who don’t know anything about Jason will be confused about the circumstances that would lead the FBI to look for Jason. Based on the title of the movie and the opening scene, viewers will know that Jason is not going to be the subject of an intense manhunt just because he might have sold some stolen jewelry at a pawn shop.

Jason is going to be a suspect for murder, but the “who, what, where, when and why” questions about the murder aren’t addressed until 66 minutes into the movie, when the actual murder takes place. Until then, viewers are kept in the dark (unless they already know the real-life story) about what exactly Jason did that has the FBI putting so many resources into looking for him. A better movie would have told the story in chronological order, or would have at least established from the beginning why Jason committed a federal crime that fell under the FBI’s jurisdiction.

Up until the murder scene, “American Murderer” shows mostly these two types of scenes: (1) interviews conducted by Lance and (2) flashbacks of Jason’s life before the murder was committed. One of the first people whom Lance is shown interviewing in Utah is a real-estate agent named Melanie Baker (played by Idina Menzel), a single mother who owns a house across the street from the house where she lives. For a period of time before the murder happened, Jason was her tenant in the rental house. Jason told her that he and his brother had a successful business importing and exporting golf equipment from Asia.

During the interview, Lance mentions that some of Melanie’s neighbors think that Melanie and Jason had an intimate relationship. Melanie denies that she and Jason ever had sex or dated, but flashbacks show that Melanie is lying. While Jason was signing the rental contract, Jason was very flirtatious and asked her on a date, but she declined the offer because she said that she had to be home when her son leaves school for the day. Still, it’s obvious she’s attracted to him, Jason knows it, and they both act on that attraction later.

Melanie has a son named Zachary “Zach” Baker (played by Asher James), who’s about 11 or 12 years old. Flashbacks show that Jason quickly charmed himself into Melanie’s and Zach’s lives. Jason and Melanie began having sex with each other. Jason got Zach to like him by secretly playing video games with him that Melanie won’t allow Zach to play. Jason also began acting like Melanie’s boyfriend by helping take care of Zach, having meals and sleepovers at Melanie’s place, and buying gifts for Zach and Melanie.

Melanie has this to say about Jason in her interview with Lance: “Maybe he was a little ostentatious and rubbed people the wrong way, but when I needed Jason’s help, he really was there for me.” She adds, “Jason was really great with kids. With all the toys he had and money he threw around, he actually endeared himself to the neighborhood pretty quickly.”

A big problem with “American Murderer” is that it gives these snippets of information but not a full or meaningful picture. For example, it’s mentioned in the movie that Jason was a career con artist for years, but he was only arrested once before the 2004 armed robbery/murder happened. In a flashback scene taking place about eight years before the robbery/murder, Jason is shown stealing golf equipment from a store and being arrested for it the same day.

Even though his arrest for that theft is shown in the movie, “American Murderer” never shows or explains how or why he got away with so many other alleged crimes for so long. What happened to any investigations into his scams? What happened to the victims? Those questions are never answered in the movie.

“American Murderer” also doesn’t fill in many blanks that it creates about Jason’s family background. He was born in Los Angeles and raised in California’s Los Angeles/Orange County region. His parents divorced when he and his two siblings were underage children. There’s a late 1970s flashback scene showing Jason’s father David Brown Sr. (played by Kevin Corrigan) in a small motel room with Jason (played by Dayne Xavier Fox), Jason’s older brother David Brown Jr. (played by Adrian Perez) and Jason’s older sister Jamie Brown (played by Ryan Bingham). The kids are about 9 to 12 years old.

Jamie complains that she wants to go home. David Sr. tells the kids that they are with him because their mother didn’t fight hard enough for custody. Jamie says that he’s lying. David Sr. puts a large wad of cash in the motel room’s safe and gives David Jr. and Jason some money to go play arcade games. The boys are willing to do whatever their father wants, but Jamie is stubbornly mistrustful of David Sr.

This scene is an example of something that is put in the movie but ultimately doesn’t do anything but bring up questions that the movie (once again) never answers. How were these children really raised? What exactly was the custody arrangement after the divorce? This motel scene looks like David Sr. took the kids away from their mother without the mother’s consent, and he’s lying to the kids about it, but everything is so vague in this scene, it’s difficult to come to any conclusions.

Later in the movie, it’s mentioned that David Sr. disappeared in 1994, when Jason was 25 years old, and he still has not been found to this day. There’s nothing in the movie that explains how this disappearance affected Jason and the rest of the family. There’s not even a mention of what the family thinks happened to David Sr. to cause this disappearance.

“American Murderer” also shows that, in 2004, Jason’s mother really isn’t dead, like he claimed in the pawn shop scene. In 2004, Jason’s mother Jeanne Brown (played by Jacki Weaver) is alive and well and has had periods of estrangement from Jason because he’s a pathological liar who only contacts her when he wants money from her. She loves him but she’s become fed up with Jason and his con-artist ways.

One of the movie’s best scenes (in a movie that has very few good scenes) is when Jason and Jeanne have a confrontational argument when he shows up at her home unannounced, after not seeing or speaking to her for three years. Jason is there to ask Jeanne for $20,000 to invest in a business that they both know doesn’t really exist. Much credit should go to Weaver for her exemplary acting talent in this memorable scene, but she’s not in the movie long enough to save it from its shoddy storytelling.

After the 2004 robbery/murder, Jason’s older siblings Jamie (played by Shantel VanSanten) and David Jr. (played by Paul Schneider) come into contact with FBI agent Lance, who interviews them at different points in the movie. Jamie gives more information about Jason than David does. Jamie says their father David Sr. is probably why Jason turned into a criminal. But then, the movie cuts to that 1970s flashback scene of the family in the motel, which doesn’t show anything except that Jamie thinks her father is lying about their mother not caring enough about the kids to fight for custody for them.

“American Murderer” has a scene where Lance interviews a woman who knew Jason because she was his friend from high school. She briefly mentions that Jason used to be married and “a straight-laced Mormon missionary in France.” But don’t expect to see any scenes in the movie showing that part of Jason’s life. Instead, there are several repetitive flashbacks of Jason as a cocaine-snorting jerk who has a habit of partying at nightclubs, showing off whatever luxury car he got with money he scammed, and being a playboy. A better movie would have shown the massive contrasts between his Mormon missionary life and his criminal life that he would have later on.

“American Murderer” also has multiple scenes showing that Jason owed enough money where thugs were following him and sometimes beating him up. At one point, during one of these beatings, Jason is told that he needs to pay the $80,000 that he owes, or else something worse than a beating will happen to him. When an injured Jason tries to get a loan from a bank, his application is rejected. The loan officer (played by Sila Agavale), who notices Jason’s facial injuries, advises Jason to get out of town.

After he fails to get the money he needs, Jason (now living in the Phoenix area) starts planning to rob an armored truck after it picks up money from a movie theater. Jason wants to commit the robbery on a Monday, when he knows that the truck will be carrying cash from the weekend—the period of time when movie theaters do their biggest business of the week. One of the people who knew about Jason’s scheme was a drug buddy named Kyle Wallace (played by Moises Arias), who is interviewed by Lance.

In yet another flashback scene, Jason is shown snorting cocaine with Kyle at Kyle’s home when Jason tells Kyle about the robbery plan and asks Kyle to commit the robbery with him, but Kyle wants no part of it. Jason gets angry about this rejection, so he puts a gun to Kyle’s head in a threatening manner and pulls the trigger. Jason then tells Kyle that the gun is empty, and Jason laughs at Kyle, like it’s all one big joke. Kyle doesn’t think it’s funny at all, and he orders Jason out of his home, but Jason doesn’t want to leave.

Kyle is much smaller than Jason, but Kyle is very angry and gets in a physical scuffle with Jason, which catches Jason off guard. When Jason sees that Kyle is not easily intimidated by him, Jason switches gears and makes profuse apologies for the gun “prank,” but Kyle is unmoved. Kyle manages to cut Jason out of his life by ignoring Jason’s persistent attempts to recruit Kyle for help with the robbery.

In his portrayal of this notorious criminal, Pelphrey seems to be making an effort to depict Jason as a complex “Jekyll and Hyde” personality, but that effort can only go so far when the movie’s screenplay and direction are so shallow and limited. Phillippe’s Lance Leising character is based on the real FBI investigator of the same name, but the character is written and portrayed as very bland and extremely generic. “American Murderer” is just a jumbled mess of scenes that don’t add up to anything but a tedious and substandard “criminal investigation” movie that fails to offer impactful insights into the real people involved in this case.

Saban Films and Lionsgate released “American Murderer” in select U.S. cinemas on October 21, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘The Good Nurse,’ starring Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain

October 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain in “The Good Nurse” (Photo by JoJo Whilden/Netflix)

“The Good Nurse”

Directed by Tobias Lindholm

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 2003 in New Jersey, the dramatic film “The Good Nurse” (based on real events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A hospital nurse begins to suspect that a male co-worker nurse, who has become her friend, is murdering patients with secret drug overdoses.

Culture Audience: “The Good Nurse” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne and well-acted dramas about true crimes.

Noah Emmerich, Nnamdi Asomugha and Jessica Chastain in “The Good Nurse” (Photo by JoJo Whilden/Netflix)

“The Good Nurse” can be as clinical and drab as the hospital settings where this true-crime drama takes place. However, the principal cast members’ performances stand out in this otherwise formulaic movie. “The Good Nurse” is told from the perspective of a hospital nurse who became a whistleblower in cases that exposed one of her co-workers as a hospital serial killer. This murderer was able to get away with his crimes at various hospitals during the 16 years that he was a nurse, until his co-worker helped investigators capture this murderer. None of this is spoiler information, since the movie uses the real names of the serial killer and the whistleblower nurse in this news-making scandal.

Directed by Tobias Lindholm, “The Good Nurse” is based on Charles Graeber’s 2013 non-fiction book “The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder.” Krysty Wilson-Cairns wrote the adapted screenplay for “The Good Nurse,” a movie that had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Although one person was ultimately convicted of the murders depicted in “The Good Nurse,” the movie is an obvious and scathing indictment of a system of hospital administrators who suspected this nurse of being a serial killer but did nothing about it or possibly covered up evidence, as he moved from hospital job to hospital job.

“The Good Nurse” takes place mostly in 2003 in New Jersey, but the movie begins with a flashback scene at St. Aloysius Hospital in Pennsylvania in 1996. The scene shows a patient (who is not seen on camera, except for the patient’s feet at the end of a hospital bed) getting emergency treatment, even though the patient’s vital signs indicate that the patient is dead. While a doctor and other medical attendants frantically try to revive the patient without success, a nurse named Charles “Charlie” Cullen (played by Eddie Redmayne) stands by quietly in the room and observes. Even if viewers don’t know in advance who the villain is in the story, Redmayne’s creepy and furtive portrayal of Charlie makes it obvious that he’s a character with a lot of secrets.

The movie then flashes forward to 2003, at Parkfield Memorial Hospital in New Jersey. Hospital nurse Amy Loughren (played by Jessica Chastain) is a new employee at Parkfield Memorial and eager to make a good impression on people. Amy is a single mother of two daughters: feisty Alex Loughren (played by Alix West Lefler), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, and obedient Maya Loughren (played by Devyn McDowell), who’s about 4 or 5 years old. The children’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie. Amy and Alex have a tension-filled relationship, because Alex thinks that her mother, who works the night shift, doesn’t pay enough attention to Alex and Maya.

Amy is actually hiding a big secret from almost everyone she knows: She’s been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that could lead to a fatal heart attack or fatal stroke if Amy is under a great deal of stress. Amy’s doctor tells her that she needs a heart transplant and should no longer do the type of stressful work that she’s doing. Amy can’t quit her job because she needs the health insurance to pay for the operation. As a new employee, Amy also won’t get paid medical leave until she’s been on the job for six months.

Amy is already financially struggling, so she’s under tremendous pressure to keep her job for the health insurance, even though the job can be detrimental to her health. Amy’s doctor advises her to tell Alex about the warning signs to look for if Amy is having a stroke, such shortness of breath, pressure in the chest, or feeling weak or faint. However, Amy is reluctant to take this advice because she doesn’t want to her kids to worry about her health. This movie depicts Amy as a loner who doesn’t have any close friends or family members to rely on for support. She gets childare help from a middle-aged babysitter named Jackie (played by Marcia Jean Kurtz), who doesn’t mind if Amy is sometimes late in paying her.

Meanwhile, at Parkfield Memorial, Amy is a compassionate nurse who sometimes bends the rules for patients if it will help the patients be more comfortable. For example, near the beginning of the movie, Amy is tending to an elderly patient named Ana Martinez (played by Judith Delgado), who is being visited by her devoted husband, Sam Martinez (played by Jesus-Papoleto Melendez). During one of these visits, Sam asks to stay in the hospital room overnight with his wife, even though it’s against the hospital rules for visitors to stay past visiting hours.

Amy allows this overnight stay, but she’s reprimanded for it later by her boss Vivian Neal (played by Myra Lucretia Taylor), after Vivian finds out about this breach of protocol. Vivian says when she’s scolding Amy that the hospital isn’t a hotel. Vivian also mentions that the hospital is putting her under a lot of financial scrutiny for expenses. Amy takes the criticism in stride, but it’s the movie’s first indication that the hospital is run like a corporation focused on profits.

Amy soon meets Charlie, one of the other night-shift nurses who has Ana Martinez as a patient. Just like Amy, Charlie is a loner, who seems to be quiet and introverted. Amy and Charlie start talking with each other, and they eventually become work friends. Charlie confides in Amy about his personal problems: He is in a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife over their underage children. According to Charlie, his ex-wife lies about him so that she can try to win the custody battle.

Not long after Charlie and Amy meet, Ana Martinez dies. Amy and Charlie happen to be in the hospital room where Ana’s body is laying on the hospital bed before Charlie has to clean the body in preparation for the corpse to be taken to the hospital morgue. In this moment, Charlie tells Amy that his mother died in a hospital, which misplaced his mother’s body for a few hours. As soon as Charlie makes this revelation, you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know he’s probably got anger and revenge issues related to how his mother died and how the hospital mishandled her death.

As nurses, Amy and Charlie have access to the hospital’s medication supply room and are responsible for administering medication to patients. Amy is trusting of Charlie and, at first, she doesn’t think there’s anything suspicious about him. She also doesn’t suspect that Ana died of anything but natural causes, until Amy sees internal hospital records much later in the movie.

Eventually, Amy tells Charlie her secret about having cardiomyopathy, when he notices during their work shift that she has difficulty breathing and she almost faints. She also tells him about her health insurance predicament, and she begs him to not to tell anyone else. Amy has also been secretly stealing some medication from the hospital supply room to ease some of her physical pain, and she confesses this secret to Charlie. At the time that Amy confides in Charlie about her cardiomyopathy, she has to wait about four months until she has the health insurance to pay for her heart operation and can go on a paid medical leave.

Charlie is immediately sympathetic to Amy. He gives Amy pep talks and offers to help her as much as he can. Charlie repeatedly tells Amy that the two of them will get through her ordeal together. Amy trusts Charlie enough to invite him into her home and introduce him to her children. She notices that Charlie is especially good with Alex, who responds warmly to Charlie’s friendliness. It’s a relief for Amy, because Alex is often hostile or aloof with Amy, and Charlie always seems to put Alex in a good mood.

But trouble is brewing at Parkfield Memorial. Two police detectives are investigating Ana Martinez’s death: Tim Braun (played by Noah Emmerich) and Danny Baldwin (played by Nnamdi Asomugha), who are asked by hospital officials to do a formal investigation. Why? The hospital’s board of directors wants to make sure that there won’t be any issues that would make the hospital liable for Ana’s death. The supervisor for Tim and Danny is Sam Johnson (played by Malik Yoba), who has a high standard for the evidence that must be gathered before any arrests are made.

The two Parkfield Memorial Hospital officials who interact the most with the police detectives are Linda Garran (played by Kim Dickens) and attorney Duncan Beattie (played by David Lavine), who are portrayed as cold-hearted corporate types. Linda and Duncan are reluctant for this investigation to happen and stonewall the detectives any way that they can. A city council member named Malcolm Burrel (played by Bruce MacVittie) gets involved in the political aspects of the investigation.

Linda and Duncan assemble a meeting with Parkfield Memorial Hospital employees (including Amy and Charlie) to inform everyone that the investigation is taking place. The employees in this meeting are warned not to talk to police without a Parkfield Memorial official present during the interview. Duncan also sternly reminds the employees about a confidentiality clause in their employee contract, which is his way of saying that an employee can be fired for disclosing information about the hospital and patients without the hospital’s permission.

You know where all of this is going, of course. The rest of the “The Good Nurse” follows a crime procedural formula that has been done before in many movies of this ilk. Danny is the first of the two detectives to become more suspicious of Charlie, especially when the cops find out that Charlie was one of the nurses who had access to medication given to Ana; the hospital conducted an internal seven-week investigation into Ana’s death; and the hospital did not fully disclose the results of the investigation to Ana’s family.

During a background check of Charlie, the detectives find out that Charlie isn’t quite the “nice guy with a harmless reputation” that he seems to be. Charlie had a prior arrest for criminal trespassing (he was accused by an ex-girlfriend/ex-co-worker of slashing her tires), but his accuser eventually dropped the charges. The detectives also find it suspicious that Charlie worked at nine other hospitals that will only confirm his dates of employment and won’t divulge any information about what Charlie was like as an employee. (For legal reasons, it’s standard procedure for previous employers not to give out information about past employees except for the dates that they were employed.)

Eventually, Amy gets suspicious of Charlie and does her own investigating. She’s in a lot of denial at first because Charlie is her friend. She’s also worried about getting fired if she secretly cooperates with the police. Danny and Tim have moments where they are hotheaded and lose their tempers. But, for the most part, they are fairly generic cop characters. When Charlie is questioned by these two detectives, Danny plays the “good cop” role, while Tim plays the “bad cop” role.

Chastain and Redmayne both give nuanced performances that show how easily people can be manipulated by sociopaths who want to project the image of being “nice and friendly” people. Charlie’s disturbed mental state doesn’t become truly obvious until a pivotal scene in an interrogation room. However, Redmayne’s performance always shows hints that something is not quite right about Charlie, based on the way that Charlie observes and interacts with people,

The character of Amy could have been developed better, but the movie fulfills its purpose with this character if it intended to make her look like someone who didn’t have a social life outside of Charlie. However, Chastain goes a good job of conveying the inner conflict and turmoil that Amy experienced in this criminal case, in addition to Amy dealing with her own health crisis. The cinematography of “The Good Nurse,” which has a lot of gray-blue lighting and hues, is a reflection of this movie’s constant melancholic tone.

“The Good Nurse” could have used more empathy and screen time in letting viewers know more about the victims and their families who were portrayed in the film. The movie also hints at but never says out loud something that’s very obvious to people who have enough life experience: Charlie probably got away with all that he got away with because of racial issues and having the privilege of being part of a majority race. (Studies have shown that hospital serial killers in any country are almost always of the majority race in that country.)

In other words, it’s hard to imagine the real-life Charlie Cullen being able to get away with his crimes for as long as he did if he were a race other than white. In the movie’s blatant attempt to put equal blame for these crimes on a hospital system as on the killer, “The Good Wife” doesn’t really want to acknowledge the racial disparities in American healthcare, when it comes to which races get better treatment overall in the U.S. health care system, compared to other races. As heroic as Amy Loughren is portrayed in “The Good Nurse,” her character and this movie have a blind spot about racial inequalities in America’s healthcare and criminal justice system. These racial inequalities, which are not acknowledged in the movie, enabled a serial killer in real life to get away with his murders for as long as he did.

Netflix released “The Good Nurse” in select U.S. cinemas on October 19, 2022. The movie premiered on Netflix on October 26, 2022.

Review: ‘She Said,’ starring Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Jennifer Ehle, Samantha Morton and Ashley Judd

October 13, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan in “She Said” (Photo by JoJo Whilden/Universal Pictures)

“She Said”

Directed by Maria Schrader

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 2016 and 2017, primarily in New York City (and briefly in California, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Italy), the dramatic film “She Said” (based on real events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey investigate sexual abuse allegations against entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein and help usher in a new era in the #MeToo movement.

Culture Audience: “She Said” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted historical dramas about investigative journalism and seeking justice for crimes.

Wesley Holloway, Jennifer Ehle and Justine Colan in “She Said” (Photo by JoJo Whilden/Universal Pictures)

With the tone and pace of a procedural crime drama, “She Said” uncovers nothing new about The New York Times’ 2017 report that helped spur the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, who went from being a powerful mogul in the entertainment industry to becoming an imprisoned, convicted rapist. However, the movie’s top-notch cast members (including a terrific Samantha Morton in a standout supporting role) deliver better-than-average performances in this important story that needs to be told. It’s a very female-driven movie that puts the narrative where it belongs: on Weinstein’s abuse survivors who had the courage to speak to The New York Times for this groundbreaking report, as well as the two women who investigated and wrote this report.

Directed by Maria Schrader and written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, “She Said” is adapted from the 2019 non-fiction book “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement,” written by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the two New York Times reporters who investigated and wrote the report that exposed accusations against Weinstein for crimes and misdeeds against women, spanning several decades as far back as the 1980s. The report, which was published in October 2017, included detailed accounts of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault alleged by a variety of women, including some of Weinstein’s former employees, famous actresses (such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd) and various other colleagues. “She Said” had its world premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

“She Said” opens with a flashback to 1992. In this scene, a 21-year-old female production assistant is on a film set in Ireland. She comes across as an eager and friendly employee who’s happy to be at her job and enjoys being around her co-workers. The movie then abruptly shifts to showing her running in fear on a city street, as if she’s just experienced something terrifying.

It’s at this point you know that this woman has become one of Weinstein’s sexual abuse victims. In 1992, Weinstein (who co-founded Miramax Films and later The Weinstein Company) was on the rise in the industry as a movie producer and studio chief. He would eventually win an Academy Award for Best Picture, for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love.”

Later on in “She Said,” which takes place mostly in 2016 and 2017, viewers find out that this frightened young woman’s name is Zelda Perkins. And 25 years after her horrifying experience with Weinstein left her with deep trauma and disillusionment about the entertainment industry, Zelda (played by Morton) is ready to tell her story to The New York Times. It’s by far the best scene in the movie. She declares, “This is bigger than Weinstein. This is about the system protecting abusers.”

“She Said” goes step-by-step in showing how Jodi Kantor (played by Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (played by Carey Mulligan) ended up working together on this landmark investigation which helped bring a surge to the #MeToo movement and garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Kantor and Twohey. (For the purpose of this review, the movie characters will be referred to by their first names, while the real-life people will be referred to by their last names.) Someone who is briefly mentioned (but never shown) in the movie is investigative journalist Ronan Farrow, who also won a Pultizer Prize for his own Weinstein exposé that The New Yorker published a day after The New York Times’ report. “She Said” portrays Farrow’s report as something that Jodi and Megan were aware was happening simultaneously, but Farrow’s competing report did not distract Jodi and Megan from their own investigation.

Jodi’s and Megan’s respective personal lives are shown tangentially for context reasons, in order to give viewers an idea of how this investigation affected their lives outside of their jobs. Jodi and Megan both have loving, supportive husbands (Jodi’s journalist husband Ron Lieber is played by Adam Shapiro; Megan’s literary-agent husband Vadim “Jim” Rutman is played by Tom Pelphrey), but the women are at different stages in their lives when it comes to motherhood.

At the beginning of the investigation, Jodi had two daughters under the age of 12, while Megan was a mother of a newborn child. (Elle Graham has the role of Jodi and Ron’s older daughter Gracie, while Maren Heary has the role of younger daughter Nell.) Their struggles with post-partum depression are mentioned in the movie when Megan confides in Jodi about having post-partum depression, and Jodi reveals that she had this type of depression too.

“She Said” also shows that while Jodi was enthusiastic about pursuing the investigation from the beginning, Megan was more skeptical and reluctant, because many of their sources refused to go on the record, usually because they signed non-disclosure agreements with Weinstein in exchange for a monetary settlement, and/or the accusers feared retaliation. The movie takes on sinister qualities when it shows that Megan and Jodi (and some of their sources) were stalked and threatened by unidentified men who were believed to have been hired by Weinstein.

Slowly but surely, through in-person visits to interview many of the survivors in person, Jodi and Megan begin to get a growing number of women who were willing to go on the record. Judd portrays herself in the scenes where she interacts with Megan and Jodi. In real life and in the movie, Judd tells her story about how Weinstein had her blackballed from getting jobs after she rejected his sexual advances.

Two other key witnesses come forward to help with the investigation: former Weinstein employees Rowena Chiu (played by Angela Yeoh) and Laura Madden (played by Jennifer Ehle), a mother of two underage children, who was also dealing with the recent news that she would have to get a mastectomy due to her breast cancer. (Justine Colan has the role of Laura’s daughter Iris, while Wesley Holloway has the role of Laura’s son Hywel.) Yeoh and Ehle both make an impact with their admirable performances.

Jodi, the more emotionally sensitive reporter of the duo, is described by Megan at one point in the movie as “less intimidating” than Megan because Jodi is shorter and looks more approachable. There’s a well-performed scene where Jodi makes a big mistake in revealing some information to Rowena’s husband that could derail a possible interview with Rowena. Jodi is distraught by this mistake, in a powerful scene that shows the human fallibility that can happen in investigative journalism.

Megan considers herself to be a more seasoned and more jaded reporter than Jodi. Megan doesn’t like to show emotional vulnerability, but she goes through more of an emotional rollercoaster due to her post-partum depression, which she tries to hide from her colleagues, in order not to be perceived as “weak” or “incompetent.” It’s an issue that many mothers in the workforce go through in real life, and it’s handled with tasteful respect in “She Said,” with Mulligan giving a nuanced performance.

The movie also depicts some of the rejections that Jodi and Megan received from potential sources who ultimately were too afraid or uninterested in going on the record with The New York Times. And the movie also depicts some of Weinstein’s enablers, including attorney Lisa Bloom (played by Anastasia Barzee), who tarnished her feminist image when she was hired to be a paid consultant to do damage control for Weinstein. Bloom also had a book deal with Weinstein. John Schmidt (played John Mazurek), who worked for Weinstein as a chief financial officer, and attorney Lanny Davis (played by Peter Friedman), who used to be one of Weinstein’s consultants, are shown having guilt-ridden reckonings when they are confronted by Megan and Jodi about their active participation in covering up Weinstein’s abuses.

The New York Times is portrayed as approaching this story meticulously, with supportive editors who demanded a high level of accountability and evidence before publishing the report. Patricia Clarkson has a generic role as New York Times assistant managing editor Rebecca Corbett. Andre Braugher has the flashier supervisor role as New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet, who has some of the best scenes in the movie in showing how he’s not intimidated by a bully like Weinstein.

As for any portrayal of Weinstein, “She Said” wisely relegates him to just being mostly a voice, with a brief glimpses of an actor (Mike Houston) portraying Weinstein on screen, such as when he walks in a public area with members of his team. There’s a scene where Weinstein threatens Dean with legal action against The New York Times because of the investigation that he knows will expose dark secrets. In response, Dean tells Weinstein that if he wants to make any statements on the record, Weinstein needs to talk directly to Jodi and Megan.

“She Said” also includes the 2015 real-life audio recording of Weinstein trying and failing to coerce actress/model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez into his hotel suite, a day after she says he sexually groped her without her consent. She reported this crime to the New York Police Department, which investigated Weinstein for that incident at the time, but no charges were filed against him. It’s an example of how not all of Weinstein’s accusers waited years to come forward to report Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct against them. The movie shows in no uncertain terms that those who did go public before 2017 were silenced or ignored.

Also getting a “voice only” depiction in “She Said” is actress/activist Rose McGowan (voiced by Keilly McQuail), who is shown declining to be interviewed by The New York Times about her accusation that Weinstein raped her, because she says she felt mistreated by The New York Times in the past. In real life, McGowan would go on the record with Farrow for his coverage for The New Yorker. “She Said” also has a scene of Megan and Jodi going to Paltrow’s California home to interview this Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love” actress, but Paltrow is also just a phone voice in the movie. (Near the beginning of the movie, there’s also voice cameo from an actor portraying Donald Trump, who calls Megan in 2016, during his presidential campaign, to tell her that she’s a “disgusting human being” for reporting sexual harassment allegations against Trump.)

Early on in “She Said,” the movie acknlowedges that Weinstein’s downfall happened after the April 2017 downfall of former Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly over sexual harassment allegations. Sarah Anne Masse, who is one of Weinstein’s real-life accusers (she claims he sexually harassed her in a job interview), has a cameo role as New York Times reporter Emily Steel, who helped break the story about O’Reilly’s alleged sexual misconduct. Steel and Michael S. Schmidt co-wrote the New York Times report that exposed how News Corp. (the parent company of Fox News) paid at least $13 million to settle sexual-harassment complaints made against O’Reilly, who was eventually fired from Fox News when advertisers boycotted his show. (That settlement total is now estimated to be at least $32 million.)

“She Said” might get some comparisons to the Oscar-winning 2015 drama “Spotlight,” which was about the Boston Globe’s 2001-2002 investigation of the Catholic Church covering up priests’ sexual abuse for decades. In real life, that Boston Globe report also won a Pulitzer Prize, but “Spotlight” was very much about a male-majority team of journalists (with one token woman) doing the investigating. “She Said” is much more streamlined, because there is only one main sexual abuser being investigated, although the movie does hammer home the point many times that Weinstein was aided by a system that allowed him to get away with his crimes for years.

None of this information is surprising to anyone who followed the Weinstein scandal and the aftermath of what was reported in The New York Times and The New Yorker. There have been countless news reports and some documentaries of the same subject matter. What will resonate with viewers the most in “She Said” is exactly what the title of the movie promises: Instead of making the villain the center of the story (which true-crime movies tend to do), “She Said” is all about celebrating the bravery and fortitude of the women survivors who came forward to tell their truths, and the people who helped bring some measure of justice to stop Weinstein’s reign of terror.

Universal Pictures will release “She Said” in U.S. cinemas on November 18, 2022.

Review: ‘Till,’ starring Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett and Whoopi Goldberg

October 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jalyn Hall and Danielle Deadwyler in “Till” (Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures)

“Till”

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1955 in Illinois and Mississippi, the dramatic film “Till” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After her 14-year-old son (and only child) Emmett Till is murdered in a racist hate crime, Mamie Till-Mobley fights for justice in a system where white supremacy is enabled and enforced. 

Culture Audience: “Till” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Danielle Deadwyler and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as to people who are interested in well-acted biographical stories about the civil rights movement in the United States.

Danielle Deadwyler and Whoopi Goldberg in “Till” (Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures)

The heartbreaking and inspiring drama “Till” admirably tells the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley and how she not only fought for justice for her murdered son, Emmett Till, but also how she became an often-overlooked pioneer in the U.S. civil rights movement. Even though the events in “Till” take place in the 1955, everything about the movie remains relevant, as long as people are getting murdered, abused or harassed simply because of race or other parts of their identities. Danielle Deadwyler gives a stunning and emotionally stirring performance as a humble woman who channeled her grief over her murdered son (who was beaten, shot and lynched) into positive activism that has far-reaching effects that can be felt for years to come.

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, “Till” could have easily been yet another civil rights movie about a crusading lawyer, a law-making politician, a famous activist with a large following, or a hate-crime victim. And although these characters are definitely in “Till,” all of these characters in this history-based movie are male. It’s rare that a movie about the U.S. civil rights movement focuses on an African American woman, even though African American women have been the backbone of many important social movements in the United States.

“Till” had its world premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City. At the New York Film Festival’s “Till” press conference, which took place on the morning of the gala premiere, filmmaker Chukwu said that she didn’t want to direct the movie unless it centered on Till-Mobley. The movie’s producers agreed, and Chukwu presented her vision of the story, which included a rewrite of the screenplay to focus on Till-Mobley’s perspective. (Chukwu co-wrote the “Till” screenplay with Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly, two of the movie’s producers.)

It turned out to be the correct decision. One of Chukwu’s strengths as a director is in making great casting choices. Deadwyler, in the role of Till-Mobley, anchors the movie in a way that is the epitome of portraying inner strength and an ordinary person who becomes an extraordinary catalyst for social change. The movie also shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways how grief and pain can be turned into something positive that becomes much bigger than being about just one person.

Many people watching “Till” might already be familiar with the name Emmett “Bo” Till and might already be aware of how the racist torture and murder of this innocent 14-year-old boy in 1955 was a turning point in the U.S. civil rights movement. The movie “Till” brings him to life in the performance of Jalyn Hall, who depicts Emmett as an outgoing and fun-loving teenager who liked to hang out with his friends and occasionally flirted with girls who caught his attention. People who know Emmett very well usually call him by his nickname Bo.

Born in 1941 in Chicago, Emmett was raised in Chicago, where his mother Mamie worked as an educator. Emmett was Mamie’s only child. In 1945, Emmett’s military father, Louis Till, died at the age of 23 in combat during World War II. Mamie then had a short-lived marriage (lasting from 1951 to 1952) to Pink Bradley, with the marriage ending in divorce. Mamie grew up in her home state of Mississippi but had relocated to Chicago in search of better work opportunities and a less oppressive racial environment.

That doesn’t mean racially integrated Chicago or anywhere is immune to racism. An early scene in “Till” shows Mamie shopping in a Chicago department store and asking a white store clerk about an item. The store clerk suggests to her that she shop in the basement, which was his way of saying that he didn’t want black customers to be shopping in the store’s main area.

With her head held high, Mamie looks him in the eye and calmly asks him, “Do the other customers know that too?” In other words, “Are you telling the white customers the same thing? Probably not.” It’s the first sign in the movie that Mamie is not going to play the role of a head-bowing, foot-shuffling servant, and that she can stand up for herself with intelligence and class.

In 1955, Mamie was in a happy and supportive relationship with Gene Mobley (played by Sean Patrick Thomas), who would eventually become her husband. Gene would become one of strongest sources of support during the family’s ordeal. Mamie and Gene didn’t legally marry until 1957 (two years after Emmett’s death), but they referred to each other as spouses, in a common-law way.

In August 1955, Mamie allowed Emmett to visit some of her relatives near Money, Mississippi, as part of his summer vacation. In the movie, perhaps out of a maternal instinct and concern, Mamie is apprehensive about sending Emmett to Mississippi by train on his own. At a time when racial segregation was legal and enforced in the South, she warns him that that “there are a different set of rules” for people who aren’t white in the South.

Emmett thinks that Mamie is being overprotective and maybe paranoid. Mamie’s mother Alma Carthan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) thinks so too. Alma tells Mamie that it’s time that Emmett be more independent since he’s close to being an adult and has to learn how to do things on his own. While Mamie says goodbye to Emmett the train station and he boards the train, she has a sudden look of fear on her face, which could be interpreted as a premonition that something terrible might happen to Emmett.

In Mississippi, Emmett stays with the Wright family, who are relatives on his mother’s side of the family. They include Emmett’s great-uncle Moses Wright (played by John Douglas Thompson); Moses’ wife Elizabeth (played by Keisha Tillis); and their son Maurice (played by Diallo Thompson). Moses makes money as a seller of cotton, and he oversees other African American men who pick cotton in the fields.

Emmett is expected to help out with this field work while he’s in Mississippi, but a city boy like Emmett immediately dislikes this type of physical labor. In the cotton fields, Emmett complains that picking cotton is a “square thing to do” (in other words, it’s too “country” for him), and he doesn’t take the work seriously. Instead, he sometimes goofs off on the job, such as pretending to pass out and getting a laugh when he reveals that nothing is wrong with him. It’s an example of Emmett’s impish sense of humor but also his naïveté at how different the lifestyle is for his working-class relatives in rural Mississippi, compared to the middle-class lifestyle he has in a big city like Chicago.

Maurice, who is in his late teens or early 20s, is a stern taskmaster who constantly warns Emmett not to be so cavalier about work and being an African American in an area where African Americans are targeted for lynchings and other hate crimes by white racists. During his stay in Mississippi, Emmett hangs out with Maurice and two of Maurice’s teenage pals who also work in the cotton fields: Wheeler Parker (played by Gem Marc Collins, also known as Marc Collins) and Simmy (played by Tyrik Johnson). Maurice is the unofficial leader of this group of friends.

When Emmett playfully flirts with some white teenage girls nearby, Maurice tells Emmett that he better not act that way with any white people, or else he could be killed. Emmett doesn’t take this warning seriously, because in his young life, he has personally never known anyone who was killed because of racist hate. And in Chicago, it’s not taboo for black people and white people to interact with each other.

One day, when Emmett, Maurice, Wheeler and Simmy have some time off from work, they hang out in front of a small grocery store. Emmett goes inside to buy a bottle of soda. The cashier behind the counter is Mrs. Carolyn Bryant (played by Haley Bennett), a white woman in her late 20s or early 30s. Emmett is friendly and open with everyone he meets, so he greets Carolyn with a smile and looks directly in her eyes.

In this racist area, where a black person is expected to act fearful and deferential toward white people, Emmett’s friendly confidence immediately makes Carolyn fill uneasy. She glares at him suspiciously has he pays for his soda. Emmett then tells her as a compliment, “You look like a movie star.”

Carolyn stares at him as if she can’t believe a black person is talking to her in this way. Emmett is oblivious to her silent hostility and takes his wallet and shows her a photo of actress Hedy Lamarr that he keeps in his wallet. “See?” Emmett says to Carolyn, as a way to point her physical resemblance. Carolyn looks even angrier, but Emmett doesn’t seem to notice.

Instead, Emmett cheerfully waves goodbye. And as if to make it clear that he thinks that Carolyn is pretty, she looks back at her and gives a flirtatious whistle. Carolyn is so incensed at this point, she leaves the counter to get a shotgun, which she plans to aim at Emmett. When Emmett sees that he could get shot but this angry racist, he suddenly understands the enormity of the situation.

Emmett runs outside while Carolyn follows him with the shotgun in aimed at him. Emmett and his pals quickly get in their truck and drive away before the situation escalates. Maurice is furious when he finds out what Emmett said and did. Maurice immediately wants to tell his father what happened, but Wheeler and Simmy convince Maurice to keep it a secret between the four of them.

However, this incident isn’t kept a secret by Carolyn. A few days later, her husband Roy Bryant (played by Sean Michael Weber) and his half-brother JW Milam (played by Eric Whitten) force their way with guns into the Wright family home, kidnap Emmett, and take him in their truck, where Carolyn and a few other men have come along for the ride. After Carolyn identifies Emmett as the teenager who flirted with her, Emmett is taken to an isolated farm area.

“Till” does not show on screen what happened to Emmett after he was kidnapped, but the movie does have some disturbing sound effects that don’t leave any doubt that he was tortured and beaten. At the New York Film Festival press conference for “Till,” Chukwu said she made a conscious decision for the movie not to show any physical violence against “black bodies.” It was the correct choice, because showing this type of violence could be thought of as exploitation and gives too much agency to the murderers.

Mamie finds out that Emmett has been kidnapped. Friends, family—including Mamie’s father, John Carthan (played by Frankie Faison), who is divorced from Alma and has remarried—as well as other people in the African American community join Mamie in their frantic search for Emmet. And then, they get the devastating news three days after his abduction that Emmett was found murdered (he was beaten and shot to death) in the Tallahatchie River. These scenes are heart-wrenching to watch.

Overwhelmed by grief, Mamie’s first priority was to get Emmett’s body returned to her so that he could be buried in Chicago. She wasn’t thinking about becoming an activist. But after seeing his disfigured and bloated body (which is replicated on screen), Mamie makes a crucial decision to let Emmett’s body be photographed and published by the media.

Mamie also decides that his funeral would be an open-casket funeral, where the thousands of attendees could see for themselves what the horrors and evils of racism look like up close. As Mamie says later in the movie when she tells reporters how she felt when she saw Emmett’s dead body: “My son came home to me reeking of racial hatred.”

The rest of “Till” takes viewers on an emotional journey as Mamie uses her inner strength to get justice for Emmett, which was also really a battle for anyone else wronged by a racist American society. Along the way, she meets some influential people who help her and teach her how to navigate being a civil rights activist with the agendas of politicians, lawyers and the media. Mamie also became more involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a result of her political awakening.

Rayfield Mooty (played by Kevin Carroll), a Chicago labor who also happened to be Mamie’s second cousin, was instrumental in putting Mamie in with the NAACP. In the movie, Rayfield is the first person to bluntly tell Mamie that she has to think strategically. “It would be a good opportunity for a politician to take on Emmett’s cause in an election year,” he advises her.

Her other allies include NAACP attorney William Huff (played by Keith Arthur Bolden), who was recommended to Mamie by Rayfield; civil rights activists William Medger Evers (played by Tosin Cole) and Myrlie Evers (played by Jayme Lawson), Medger’s wife. “Till” shows how the murder of Emmett was just the beginning of the trauma, since murder trial was a continual barrage of racial inequalities that gave preference to the white defendants. Although it is widely believed that several people were involved in Emmett’s murder, only Bryant and Milam went on trial for the murder.

The murder trial in September 1955 (a quick turnaround, considering the murder happened just a month before) is an example of how there are often two types of justice, based on the races of the people involved. Although many “Till” viewers will already know the outcome of the trial before seeing the movie, it doesn’t make the outcome any less impactful. “Till” has a lot of riveting scenes that are meant to upset and enlighten people.

“Till” also shows that sexism against women also played a role in how Mamie was mistreated and misjudged by bigoted members of society during the media coverage of the trial. (Her morality was attacked because she had been divorced, which is criticism that would have been less likely to be inflicted on a divorced man.) She was also advised to not look angry in public, even though she had every right to be angry about what happened to her only child.

And that’s why it’s important for this movie to be shown from a female perspective. In 1955 American society, Mamie didn’t have the privilege of being a church leader or a chapter president of the NAACP, since those leadership positions were almost always were held by men. Even in the early civil rights movement, women were rarely allowed to give long and passionate speeches in public. It’s why what Mamie accomplishes goes beyond racism but also speaks to how she dealt with gender inequalities within the civil rights movement.

“Till” also shows in effective ways the burden of guilt that the women in Emmett’s family feel because they made the decision to let him take that fateful trip to Mississippi. One of Goldberg’s best scenes in the movie is showing through her body language the heavy heart that Alma must have felt in knowing that she was the one to convince Mamie that Emmett needed to go to Mississippi on his own. When Alma breaks down in tears and expresses an outpouring of guilt to Mamie, it’s an example of how trauma often makes loved ones feel responsible for what happened, or feel like they didn’t do enough to protect their loved one, even though it wasn’t their fault.

The movie also accurately depicts that Mamie did not become an activist overnight. It was a gradual process as she began to understand that no one else could be a better advocate for Emmett than she was. Mamie did not ask to become a public figure who was thrust into the spotlight. It was a calling that she answered, out of love and necessity.

Chukwu brings solid direction to “Till,” with many artistic choices in sound, production design, film editing, music, costume design and cinematography. It would be tempting for any filmmaker to make “Till” look like a sweeping epic melodrama. But thankfully, Chukwu and the other “Till” filmmakers refrained from making “Till” look like a social justice soap opera. An over-the-top tone would ruin the whole point of the movie, which is to make the story relatable.

“Till” shows in many ways that the horrific crime that happened to Emmett and his family can, has and does happen to ordinary, law-abiding people through no fault of their own. And, just as importantly, the movie helps people understand that you don’t have to come from a rich or privileged background to make a difference in society. “Till” arrives in theaters in the same year that the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed into law by U.S. President Joe Biden on March 29, 2022. The law now makes lynching a federal hate crime in the United States.

The technical aspects of “Till” work very well for the movie, but the story unquestionably has a particular resonance because of how Deadwyler and the rest of the cast members fully embody their characters with authenticity. Even when experiencing so many indignities, Deadwyler shows through her nuanced and outstanding performance how Mamie remained dignified and steadfast in her search for justice. “Till” is a necessary reminder that the work of Till-Mobley and other civil rights advocates is far from over, because racism is everyone’s problem, not just the problem of the people who are targets of this hate.

Orion Pictures will release “Till” in select U.S. cinemas on October 14, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘Hold Your Fire,’ starring Harvey Schlossberg, Shu’aib Rahim and Jerry Riccio

July 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

A 1973 photo of Shulab Abdur Raheem (now known as Shu’aib Rahim) in “Hold Your Fire” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Hold Your Fire”

Directed by Stefan Forbes

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Hold Your Fire” features a group of African American and white people from the working-class and middle-class who were in some way connected to a kidnapping/hostage standoff that lasted from January 19 to January 21, 1973, in New York’s City’s Brooklyn borough.

Culture Clash: There was racial tension in this crisis because the hostage takers were four young African American men, almost all of the police officers were white, and there was disagreement among law enforcement on how to handle this crisis. 

Culture Audience: “Hold Your Fire” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching true crime documentaries that go deep in discussing racial issues and hostage negotiations tactics.

A 1973 photo of New York Police Department officers in “Hold Your Fire” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The compelling documentary “Hold Your Fire” has lessons that go beyond this chronicle of a notorious hostage crisis that happened in New York City in 1973. The movie shows how dangerous situations can be de-escalated with the correct communication. Directed by Stefan Forbes, “Hold Your Fire” takes the view that how this hostage crisis was handled was a turning point in getting the New York Police Department (NYPD) to rethink the “shoot first, ask questions later” automatic reaction to hostage takers. “Hold Your Fire” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and made the rounds at some other film festivals, including the 2021 edition of DOC NYC.

Almost everyone who’s interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” was directly affected in some way to this hostage-taking incident, which lasted from January 19 to January 21, 1973, in New York’s City’s Brooklyn borough. It all started when four African American men—ranging in ages from 22 to 26—went into a store called John and Al’s Sporting Goods, with the intention of robbing the store of firearms and ammunition. John and Al’s Sporting Goods was located in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, which in 1973 had a reputation for being a crime-ridden, low-income area. (Bushwick is still mostly working-class, but it has since been gentrified and “cleaned up” its “on the decline” image that it had in the 1970s.)

The four men who invaded the store were Sunni Muslims, who wanted the firearms and ammunition for what was later described as a “holy crusade” and for self-defense against recent attacks from Black Muslims. The robbers were Shulab Abdur Raheem (now known as Shu’aib Rahim), who was 24 years old at the time; Yusef Abdallah Almussadig (now known as Mussidiq), who was 23; Dawud A. Rahman, who was 22; and Salih Ali Abdullah, who was 26. Although all four men have been identified as being members of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) when this crime happened, in “Hold Your Fire,” Rahim (who was the leader of the robbers) claims he was not a BLA member when this crime occurred.

Contrary to what perceptions might have been, these four men were not career criminals at the time of this robbery and hostage-taking crisis. Rahim was a transit toll-booth worker. Mussidiq was a carpenter. Rahman was a college student. Abdullah was a TV repairman. Rahim and Rahman are the only two of the four robbers interviewed in “Hold Your Fire.” The movie’s epilogue explains what happened to Mussidiq, Abdullah and a few other principal people involved in the hostage crisis.

During the robbery, things quickly spiraled out of control. The police were called to the crime scene; there were shootouts between the police and robbers; and the robbers initially refused to surrender. Instead, the robbers stayed in the store, where they took 11 people as hostages during the standoff. In “Hold Your Fire,” Rahman says he wanted to surrender immediately, but he was outvoted by his other three cohorts, who at first wanted to flee the scene, but then decided to take people hostage inside the store when they found out that many cops were surrounding the store.

Not everyone made it out of this crisis alive. NYPD officer Stephen R. Gilroy was killed during the shootouts. The NYPD, much of the media and the state of New York blamed the robbers for the death. All four men were convicted in New York Supreme Court of murdering Gilroy, kidnapping and armed robbery. But to this day, the bullet that killed Gilroy was never matched to any guns. Some people in the documentary speculate that Gilroy was killed by an accidental gunshot from someone in the NYPD and that the NYPD covered up the evidence.

Much of “Hold Your Fire” includes vivid memories of what happened inside the store and outside the store, from the people who were there during this hostage crisis. The people who were inside the store who are interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” include hostage takers Rahim and Rahman; hostage Rosemary Catalano, who was 16 years old in 1973; and Jerry Riccio, owner of John and Al’s Sporting Goods, who says the robbers’ first big mistake was trying to steal more firearms than the robbers could carry. The police officers who were outside of the store who are interviewed in “Hold Your Fire” (and who are all now retired) are Al Baker, former NYPD captain; Jack Cambria, former NYPD lieutenant/sergeant; Al Sheppard, former NYPD patrolman; and Brian Tuohy, former NYPD police officer, who was a 27-year-old rookie at the time.

In addition, “Hold Your Fire” has archival interviews with NYPD commissioner Ben Ward and NYPD Commissioner Patrick Murphy. A few academics and legal experts weigh in with their perspectives, such as criminal defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt and Dr. Antoinette “Toni” Collarini-Schlossberg, who is chair of the criminal justice division of St. John’s University in New York City. And there’s an interview with Alice Buckner, the daughter of the late Fonnie Bucker, who was one of the hostage victims. Alice says that as a result of the hostage trauma, Fonnie (who was pregnant at the time) had a nervous breakdown and a miscarriage shortly after she was released.

In interviews to promote “Hold Your Fire” and in the movie’s production notes, “Hold Your Fire” director Forbes says that the biggest hero of this crisis was Harvey Schlossberg, a NYPD officer who had a Ph.D. in psychology and who was the chief negotiator on behalf of the NYPD. Schlossberg is interviewed in “Hold Your Fire,” where he gives a step-by-step account of why he felt that the best tactic was for the NYPD to not storm into the store and shoot the robbers, which would have been standard procedure. Instead, the three-day standoff consisted of tense negotiations, which resulted in many of the hostages being released and no one else being killed before the robbers surrendered.

Schlossberg comments on his philosophy in resolving conflicts: “I believe in talking. Everything is resolvable by talking.” But as the documentary details, this tactic was very controversial in the heat of the moment. Schlossberg got a lot of pushback, complaints and threats from the NYPD, members of the media, loved ones of the hostage victims, and other people in the general public, who all thought that verbal negotiations would take too long to resolve the crisis. Many people thought that the robbers needed to be immediately killed by the police.

This standoff between the cops and the robbers happened just two years after the notorious Attica Correctional Facility crisis in Attica, New York. Attica’s male prisoners (mostly African American and Latino), who demanded more humane living conditions and better health care, took over the prison and held several prison employees hostage from September 9 to September 13, 1971. Negotiations fell apart, and then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state and local police (almost all who were white men) to employ war-like tactics to take back control of the prison. In the end, 33 inmates and 10 correctional officers and employees were killed in the violent standoff.

“Hold Your Fire” doesn’t gloss over the racial context of the very divisive debate over how the hostage crisis should have been handled at John and Al’s Sporting Goods on those fateful three days in 1973. Rahim comments in the documentary: “New York City has always had a hard, ugly relationship between the police and the community of color. All my life, the police have been killing black people.”

Baker has this counter-remark: “I know for a fact that cops aren’t racist, yet there was this perception that cops were going to brutalize blacks. Police are seen as oppressors, corrupt, brutal.” Sheppard, who was one of the cops on the scene of this hostage crisis, says that the kidnappers/robbers were looking for a violent fight: “They want a physical confrontation.” As for kidnapping/robbery leader Rahim, Sheppard adds, “A guy like that needs his ass kicked.”

Rahim does not try to excuse his heinous actions that day, but he does say that he never intended for anyone to get killed during this robbery and kidnapping. In the documentary, Rahim also denies reports that he was heard saying about slain NYPD officer Gilroy: “I killed that pig.” In “Hold Your Fire,” Rahim comments on Gilroy’s death: “I don’t know what happened. But it don’t really matter at the end of the day, because none of that would’ve happened if we weren’t there.”

Store owner Riccio refutes the NYPD claim that the cops aimed high when shooting into the store. “The police department won’t admit to a lot of things they did,” Riccio comments. Mussidiq, whom Rahim describes as the “loose cannon” of the four robbers, ended up being shot during the standoff, but he survived his gunshot wounds.

As the leader of the robbers, Rahim gets the most scrutiny and is the only one of the four robbers whose background is talked about in-depth. Rahim describes his mother, Gloria Robinson, as his “mentor” but also as an “alcoholic.” During hostage negotiations, Robinson wanted to talk to her son, but Schlossberg advised against it. Schlossberg says in the documentary that it’s generally not a good idea to involve family members or other loved ones of hostage takers in the negotiation process. “If they had a healthy family, they wouldn’t be in here [taking people hostage],” Schlossberg explains.

Rahim gets the most emotional and remorseful in the documentary when talking about Fonnie Buckner, especially when thinking about how her hostage ordeal resulted in her pregnancy miscarriage. He says that Fonnie Buckner had a chance to be released with some other hostages during the standoff, but she refused. “She didn’t trust the police,” Rahim remembers. “She wanted to stay with us.”

In hindsight, Rahim says in the documentary that he has come to understand over the years that what he and his cohorts did during those three days caused lifelong damage: “People who are hurt, injured and suffer—even oppressed—can become blinded by their own hurt and destroy the lives of so many people who did you no harm. That’s the tragedy of it all: when the victim becomes that which they fear.”

It’s mentioned several times in “Hold Your Fire” that one of the barriers with the NYPD that Schlossberg had to face in this hostage negotiation was he did not fit the image of being a macho cop. Baker comments on Schlossberg: “He didn’t look like a cop. He didn’t act like a cop … He was seen as fruity. Not a back slapper, ‘Let’s go for a beer’ guy.”

Baker continues in describing Schlossberg as “socially incompetent, academic, quirky. He has the Jewish sense of humor. A consummate Jew. He was a genius oddball, psychobabble type of guy.” In an archival interview, then-NYPD commissioner Murphy says Schlossberg “was hated, a bookworm, not a warrior.” Another reason why Schlossberg didn’t have the respect of many NYPD officials: He was mainly a traffic cop, which is a position that’s considered the wimpiest and least-demanding position possible for a police officer.

Whatever negative opinions that many influential members of the NYPD had of Schlossberg at the time, he stayed the course in the negotiations. And many people believe that he helped save the lives of the people who didn’t die in this crisis. Sadly, Schlossberg passed away in 2021. He was 85.

In “Hold Your Fire,” Schlossberg says that law enforcement officers often have this mentality during a hostage crisis: “They all believe that if you give me the right gun with the right bullet, I can put everybody out. But I don’t think it works that easily. That’s a Hollywood thing.” There is no Hollywood fantasy in “Hold Your Fire,” which is a no-frills, raw and impactful documentary that effectively shows how the right negotiations can prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

IFC Films released “Hold Your Fire” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 20, 2022.

Review: ‘Carol & Johnny,’ starring Carol Williams and Johnny Williams Jr.

July 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

An archival photo of Carol Williams and Johnny Williams Jr. in “Carol & Johnny”

“Carol & Johnny”

Directed by Colin Barnicle

Culture Representation: Filmed in 2021 in Washington state, Texas and Nevada, the documentary “Carol & Johnny” features an all-white group of working-class and middle-class people discussing estranged spouses Carolyn Marie “Carol” Wlliams and John Madison “Johnny” Williams Jr., who famously went on a bank robbery spree from 1986 to 1994 (in Texas, California and Washington state), were sent to prison, and were eventually released from prison.

Culture Clash: After being released from prison, Johnny has trouble adjusting to his new life in Seattle, and he wants to get back together with Carol, who is living in Texas and has to decide if she wants to reunite with Johnny.

Culture Audience: “Carol & Johnny” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about true crime and dysfunctional couples.

An archival photo of Carol Williams in “Carol & Johnny”

The absorbing true crime documentary “Carol & Johnny” keeps viewers guessing until the very end if two estranged spouses, who went on a bank robbery spree, will reunite after the husband gets out of prison. It’s a story that isn’t just about their crime spree, because the movie raises provocative questions about forgiveness and if ex-convicts can be redeemed after getting out of prison. Directed by Colin Barnicle, “Carol & Johnny” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The two people at the center of the movie are Carolyn Marie “Carol” Williams and John Madison “Johnny” Williams Jr., who robbed 56 banks in Texas, California and Washington state, from 1986 to 1994, the year that they were arrested. It’s believed that the stolen money from these robberies totaled $879,357. At the time of their arrest, Carol was 34, and Johnny was 43. They have been married since 1979, and they have no children together. Carol and Johnny were both convicted and sent to prison for 27 of the 56 robberies. The other robberies were past the statute of limitations to be prosecuted.

Carol (who was born in 1960) got a lighter prison sentence of 20 years, because she was just the getaway driver in these robberies. Carol was released from prison in 2011. Johnny (who was born in 1951) was the one in this bank-robbing duo who actually went into the banks for the armed robberies, so he was sentenced to 92 years in prison. However, he got an extremely lucky break and was released in 2021, because his health issues put him at a more likely risk of getting infected by COVID-19. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s probable that Johnny would have spent the rest of his life in prison.

The filmmakers of “Carol & Johnny” wisely chose to interview only a small number of people for the documentary: Carol, Johnny, Helen Williams (Johnny’s stepmother), Cindy Hawkins (Carol’s sister) and former FBI agent Don Glasser, who worked in the Seattle area during the period of time that Johnny and Carol went on their crime sprees. The reason why it was necessary for the documentary to avoid being overstuffed with too many talking heads is because too many other people being interviewed would have been distractions to the “he said/she said” way that the movie is structured. Glasser, Hawkins and Johnny’s stepmother Helen provide their own perspectives, but the two people who inspired the title of this documentary are the main focus and get most of the screen time.

The beginning of “Carol & Johnny” (which was filmed in 2021) shows Johnny living in Seattle, not long after he has been released from prison. His entire family has disowned him. His stepmother Helen doesn’t mince words when she talks about Johnny: “He’s spent his whole life with his hand out, wanting something.” She adds that “he’s not welcome” in her home.

The movie shows Johnny living in a halfway house for ex-convicts called Pioneer Fellowship House. Just like any halfway house for former prisoners, Pioneer Fellowship House has strict rules for the residents, such as curfews and not doing anything that would violate their paroles. During a documentary interview, Johnny gets a phone call from his parole officer (a woman named Jennifer) and he’s seen briefly talking with her on the phone.

In a documentary interview, Johnny comments on his life out of prison: “I’m trying to put my life together. I’ve been separated from society for so long.” Johnny is still learning how to use a cell phone. He also mentions that he wants to go to a vocational school for computer technology. Considering that he has a prison record for felonies, he has health problems, and he’s at an age when most people have retired, Johnny is going to have major obstacles if he plans to look for a job.

He knows it too, which is why his experience of life after prison is much more difficult than an ex-con who is still young enough to have a better chance of being employed. Someone like Johnny might be less motivated to find a job with all these odds stacked against him. But does that mean he’ll return to a life of crime? It’s a question that will linger in a lot of people’s minds when watching this movie. When “Carol & Johnny” director Barnicle (who’s not seen on camera) asks Johnny if he’ll ever rob a bank again, Johnny has this response: “Oh, fuck no!”

As for Carol, the beginning of the documentary shows her living in her Texas hometown of Dallas and being a live-in caretaker for her 93-year-old aunt, who has dementia. Carol is living rent-free in her aunt’s home, but Carol would rather have her own home. She also says that she doesn’t like living in Dallas. But just like Johnny, Carol is considered “unemployable” by a lot of people. It’s implied that Carol and her aunt are living off of government benefits, including disability income.

That’s because Carol, whose nickname was Mad Dog when she was in prison, got a brain injury as a prisoner. As she explains it, she was given too much water to drink in prison. Water intoxication (also known as hyponatremia) results in low sodium levels in the body. Carol says the prison treated this condition by giving her sodium, but the sodium levels were too high, which resulted in her brain injury.

Carol’s hesitant and stuttering speech patterns are indicative of someone with a brain injury, but she is still articulate enough to formulate her thoughts and communicate. She also has vivid memories of her time with Johnny, whom she hasn’t seen in person since 1995. What’s interesting is how Carol and Johnny clearly remember dates, places and times of milestones in their relationship.

When an estranged couple has spent decades living apart from each other, those memories usually tend to fade. But not for Johnny and Carol. Johnny remembers the last time he saw Carol in person was January 20, 1995, before they were sent to their respective prisons. “There wasn’t much to say,” Johnny remembers. “I just told her that I loved her and that I was sorry.”

For most of the documentary, Johnny and Carol act like a couple whose relationship was put on “pause” because of the time they spent in prison. They are still legally married. And the reason why they haven’t gotten divorced becomes obvious after seeing this movie: They say that they still love each other. Now that he’s out of prison, Johnny wants to get back together with Carol, but she isn’t sure if she wants the same thing.

In the beginning of the documentary, Carol says, “I love John. That will make some people angry, but I can’t help how they feel. I’m not responsible for anyone’s feelings but my own.” In other parts of the documentary, the filmmakers show Carol and Johnny photos of what Johnny and Carol currently look like. Carol’s reaction: “He looks much older, but so do I. Does he still cry a lot?” Johnny does cry a little in the documentary, but is he crying for himself or for Carol?

Carol says she wasn’t prepared for Johnny to ever be released from prison. She never visited him in the 10 years when she was out of prison and he was still incarcerated. She doesn’t want to visit him where he’s living in Washington state. She expects him to come visit her in Texas. Will Johnny do it? And why does Carol insist that Johnny go to her?

It’s not really said out loud, but viewers can see it has a lot to do with the dynamics of their relationship before they went to prison: Johnny was the pursuer, the one to take the lead, the one to come up with all the ideas and plans on how their lives would be. Carol wasn’t completely passive in their marriage. In the documentary, she says several times that she takes full responsibility for her own decisions and her own actions.

However, as Johnny and Carol tell their stories about their respective childhoods, and how they met, fell in love, and got married, it explains a lot about how they ended up in a relationship that turned out to be unhealthy and dangerous for both of them. It’s almost a cliché of a “good girl” who fell hard for a “bad boy.” But there’s more to it than that.

It has a lot to do with how childhood abuse can have long-lasting effects on someone’s self-esteem and the choices they can make in life. It also has to do with how people can meet each other, fall in love, and make completely different choices about the relationship, depending on what stage of life they’re in and what they want to get out of the relationship. All of these factors are part of Carol’s and Johnny’s life stories.

Johnny remembers the day that he met Carol was August 8, 1979. Carol says they met in Dallas, at the apartment that Carol’s sister shared with a boyfriend, who was a friend of Johnny’s. Johnny describes this fateful meeting with Carol: “I was 11 months out of prison, and she was 15 months out of high school. And it was like being turned loose in a candy story as a kid. It was fantastic.”

At 28 years old in 1979, Johnny was by, his own admission, a thief since childhood. When he met Carol, he was on parole for armed robbery of a convenience store. Carol knew all of that soon after meeting Johnny, and they quickly began dating each other. Her parents disapproved of the relationship.

Carol says of her relationship with Johnny at that time: “I was happy.” But there’s more to the story. Carol describes having a domineering mother who repeatedly told Carol that she “wouldn’t amount to anything.” Johnny says that when he and Carol eloped, it had a lot do with Carol wanting to get away from Dallas. The elopement was the first time that Carol really defied her mother.

Carol’s sister says of Carol’s decision to marry Johnny: “She could’ve done a hell of a lot better—trust me—but she had no self-confidence.” Carol says of her parents’ feelings about Johnny: “They learned to love him, until all that ‘other’ happened.” That “other” was the life of crime where Carol willingly followed Johnny.

Johnny’s childhood was much more chaotic than Carol’s childhood. Johnny was born in Waukegan, Illinois, and his mother gave him up to live in a Catholic group home when he was 5 months old. His maternal grandmother and her second husband then took custody of him in California and raised him in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Johnny barely knew his father, whom he describes as a deadbeat dad and a gambling addict.

“I was raised by old people,” says Johnny. “They believed in whippings and retribution.” His maternal grandmother’s second husband was named Claude Havens, who was an ex-deputy sheriff. “He was a salty cuss, and he wore me out with a razor strap,” Johnny remembers. “I always got whipped for stealing, but I kept on doing it.”

Johnny’s grandmother and her second husband got so fed up with raising Johnny, they sent him to live with the grandmother’s ex-husband. Things weren’t much better in this living situation. Carol has this to say about how Johnny’s abusive childhood had this effect on him: “He was numb to sensitivity to other people’s feelings.”

It sounds a lot like being a sociopath. And when you hear about the highly manipulative things that Johnny did to get Carol to do what he wanted, you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to reach that conclusion. Carol says that during their marriage, before they got arrested, “I was completely under his spell.” She also says that Johnny frequently got his way with her because he threatened to hurt her family if she ever left him.

These threats made Carol feel a warped sense of loyalty to Johnny. She explains her mindset at the time: “Protect my husband. Protect my spouse. That was my man, so that was my mission.”

In 1981, Johnny and Carol were working as independent carpet cleaners. In 1983, Johnny fell asleep behind the wheel of his truck, crashed it, and fractured his skull. After this accident, the couple couldn’t pay the rent where they lived. And it wasn’t long before Johnny decided to go back to stealing to get money.

In October 1985, he went to a library to read books about bank robberies. On April 3, 1986, the bank robbery spree began in Plano, Texas, with a robbery haul of $10,000. But there was a dye pack in the cash. The duo’s next bank robbery also had a dye pack in the stolen haul. By the third bank robbery, Johnny shot a bank manager, who fortunately survived. Johnny says the shooting was an “accident.” In 1987, during a bank robbery in Solano, Beach, California, he shot near a bank manager intentionally when she wasn’t moving quickly enough for him.

Carol says of the partnership that she and Johnny had in their crimes: “He’s the star. I’m just the associate. I was a damn good getaway driver.” Johnny and Carol got away with these bank robberies so easily, it became addicting to them. Johnny and Carol could steal more cash in a few minutes than what most people could make in a few months of doing honest work. Carol and Johnny eventually left Texas and moved to California. They decided early on in their crime spree that they wouldn’t rob banks that were very close to where they lived.

In their documentary interviews, Johnny and Carol say that they believe that they got away with their bank robbery spree for so long because they didn’t leave fingerprints at the crime scenes, because they meticulously planned everything, and because of Johnny’s signature bank robbery move of shooting his gun in the air immediately when he was in the bank. By shooting the gun right away, frightened potential witnesses would be more likely to avoid looking at the bank robber during the robbery, out of fear of getting shot.

The detailed planning included choosing banks that weren’t in crowded areas, finding out what time of day was the least-busiest when the targeted bank was open, and calculating the exact time each possible scenario would take to rob the bank and get away. Carol says that they always preferred a bank where the getaway car could be parked in a place nearby that was as hidden as possible, to make it less likely that any witnesses could describe the car. In the documentary, Carol describes each bank robbery as a “job” that she and Johnny took as seriously as a real job.

Because of Johnny’s tactic of scaring potential witnesses and averting their eyes by shooting a gun in the air as soon as the robbery started, witness descriptions of him varied wildly in the first few years of the robbery sprees. There were some images of him captured on surveillance cameras during robberies, but these images were often blurry, and he always disguised himself. The media came up with different nicknames for him, including the Bang Bandit, the Shootist, the Bang Man and the Lincoln Bandit.

As outlaws, Carol and Johnny used the stolen money to travel a lot, gamble, and dine in upscale restaurants. Carol says that before becoming a bank robber, “I never traveled very much.” She comments on all the vacation trips that she took: “It was fun. It was a learning experience.” She later says of this life of leisure funded by stolen money: “I got spoiled.”

During one of their vacations, Carol and Johnny went to White Sands National Park in New Mexico. It’s against the law to steal any of the white sand in the park, but chronic thief Johnny wanted to steal some sand anyway. Carol says she remembers feeling very nervous about stealing the sand. “It was against the law!” she says with horror. Oh, the irony.

And during this period of time of being an outlaw, Johnny actually made money by entering bowling tournaments. He created a fake identity for his life as a competitive bowler: Robert James Hall. If people asked Carol and Johnny where they were getting the money for their lavish spending, they would say it was through the bowling tournaments. And sometimes, Johnny would say to certain people that he was a drug dealer. Johnny’s stepmother Helen says, “We knew he was up to something, but we never dreamed it was robbing banks.”

The good times for Carol and Johnny didn’t last forever. By 1994, Carol says she was ready to quit robbing banks, but Johnny didn’t want to stop. And he got careless with his double life as a bowler. Someone called in a tip to law enforcement about Johnny using a fake name for his bowling tournaments. And that’s what led to him getting on the radar of law enforcement and his eventual arrest.

It’s not mentioned in the “Carol & Johnny” documentary, but according to a New York Post interview, Johnny says that the informant was a former acquaintance named Bob. According to Johnny, Bob was in talks with Johnny to do a home invasion of a bank manager’s home. The idea was to force the bank manager to give up security information that Johnny could use while robbing the manager’s bank. The plan for the home invasion fell through. Johnny says that Bob then turned on Johnny by telling law enforcement about Johnny’s secret life as a bank robber.

As one of the FBI agents involved in the investigation, Glasser comments, “I felt like I was a lucky guy to have that case.” Johnny and Carol were put under surveillance. Glasser says that Johnny and Carol were arrested without incident at a motel in Bothell, Washington, where they were staying after a bank robbery in Kirkland, Washington. Carol and Johnny paid for the motel room with a credit card with Johnny’s real name, which is how law enforcement found them. Once in custody, “Johnny confessed immediately” to the bank robberies, says Glasser.

Johnny and Carol don’t talk too much in the documentary about what their lives were like in prison. Instead, the biggest question that the documentary asks and what viewers will want to know is: “Will Carol and Johnny get back together?” There are a few twists and revelations in the movie, but they’re not too surprising. What makes “Carol & Johnny” fascinating to watch is it will also make viewers ask another question: “Should Carol and Johnny get back together?”

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